Sunday, May 10, 2009

Into the Wild

Following His Trail to Danger and Joy

New York Times, September 21, 2007

There is plenty of sorrow to be found in "Into the Wild," Sean Penn's
adaptation of the nonfiction bestseller by Jon Krakauer. The story
begins with an unhappy family, proceeds through a series of encounters
with the lonely and the lost, and ends in a senseless, premature
death. But though the film's structure may be tragic, its spirit is
anything but. It is infused with an expansive, almost giddy sense of
possibility, and it communicates a pure, unaffected delight in open
spaces, fresh air and bright sunshine.

Some of this exuberance comes from Christopher Johnson McCandless, the
young adventurer whose footloose life and gruesome fate were the
subject of Mr. Krakauer's book. As Mr. Penn understands him (and as he
is portrayed, with unforced charm and brisk intelligence, by Emile
Hirsch), Chris is at once a troubled, impulsive boy and a brave and
dedicated spiritual pilgrim. He does not court danger but rather
stumbles across it — thrillingly and then fatally — on the road to

In letters to his friends, parts of which are scrawled across the
screen in bright yellow capital letters, he revels in the simple
beauty of the natural world. Adopting the pseudonym Alexander
Supertramp, rejecting material possessions and human attachments, he
proclaims himself an "aesthetic voyager."

Mr. Penn serves as both his biographer and his traveling companion.
After graduating from Emory University in 1990, Mr. McCandless set off
on a zigzagging two-year journey that took him from South Dakota to
Southern California, from the Sea of Cortez to the Alaskan wilderness,
where he perished, apparently from starvation, in August 1992. "Into
the Wild," which Mr. Penn wrote and directed, follows faithfully in
his footsteps, and it illuminates the young man's personality by
showing us the world as he saw it.

What he mostly saw was the glory of the North American landscape west
of the Mississippi: the ancient woodlands of the Pacific Northwest,
the canyons and deserts farther south, the wheat fields of the
northern prairie and Alaska, a place that Mr. McCandless seemed to
regard with almost mystical reverence. Mr. Penn, who did some of the
camera work, was aided by the director of photography, Eric Gautier,
who previously turned his careful, voracious eye on the wilds of South
America in Walter Salles's "Motorcycle Diaries." That movie, like
"Into the Wild," finds epic resonance in a tale of youthful wandering
and proposes that a trek through mountains, rivers and forests can
also be a voyage of self-discovery.

Mr. Salles's film, in which Gael García Bernal played Che Guevara,
found a political dimension in its hero's journey. And while Chris's
fierce rejection of his parents' middle-class, suburban life contains
elements of ideological critique, Mr. Penn and Mr. Krakauer
persuasively place him in a largely apolitical, homegrown tradition of
radical, romantic individualism.

An enthusiastic reader (with a special affinity for Tolstoy and Jack
London), Chris is in many ways the intellectual heir of 19th-century
writer-naturalists like John Muir and especially Henry David Thoreau,
whose uncompromising idealism — "rather than love, than money, than
fame, give me truth" — he takes as a watchword. (Had he survived, Mr.
McCandless might well have joined the ranks of latter-day nature
writers like Edward Abbey and Bill McKibben.) His credo is perhaps
most succinctly stated by Thoreau's mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, who
advised that "the ancient precept, 'Know thyself,' and the modern
precept, 'Study Nature,' become at last one maxim."

One problem with this strain of American thought is that it sometimes
finds expression in self-help nostrums and greeting-card sentiments.
"If you want something in life, reach out and grab it," Chris says to
Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a teenage girl who develops a crush on him,
collapsing Self-Reliance into something like an advertising slogan.
But the movie's theme, thankfully, is not so simple or so easily
summed up in words.

Mr. Penn, even more than Mr. Krakauer, takes the Emersonian dimension
of Chris McCandless's project seriously, even as he understands the
peril implicit in too close an identification with nature. The book
took pains to defend its young protagonist against the suspicion that
he was suicidal, unbalanced or an incompetent outdoorsman, gathering
testimony from friends he had made in his last years as evidence of
his kindness, his care and his integrity. The film, at some risk of
sentimentalizing its hero, goes further, pushing him to the very brink
of sainthood. After Chris offers wise, sympathetic counsel to Rainey
(Brian Dierker), a middle-aged hippie he has befriended on the road,
the older man looks at him with quiet amazement. "You're not Jesus,
are you?" he asks.

Well no, but it's a comparison that Mr. Penn does not entirely
discourage. (Note the final, man of sorrows image of Mr. Hirsch's face
and also an earlier shot of him floating naked in a stream, his arms
extended in a familiar cruciform shape.) At the same time, though,
"Into the Wild" resists the impulse to interpret Chris's death as a
kind of martyrdom or as the inevitable, logical terminus of his
passionate desire for communion with nature.

Instead, with disarming sincerity, it emphasizes his capacity for
love, the gift for fellowship that, somewhat paradoxically,
accompanied his fierce need for solitude. Though he warns one of his
friends against seeking happiness in human relationships — and also
rails incoherently against the evils of "society" — Chris is a
naturally sociable creature. And "Into the Wild" is populated with
marvelous actors — including Mr. Dierker, a river guide and ski-shop
owner making his first appearance in a film — who make its human
landscape as fascinating and various as its topography.

The source of Chris's wanderlust, and of the melancholy that tugs at
the film's happy-go-lucky spirit, is traced to his parents (William
Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), whose volatile marriage and regard for
appearances begin to seem contemptible to their son. (His feelings for
them are explained in voice-over by his younger sister, Carine, who is
played by Jena Malone.)

Fleeing from his mother and father, Chris finds himself drawn, almost
unwittingly, to parental surrogates: a rowdy grain dealer in South
Dakota (Vince Vaughn), a retired military man in the California desert
(Hal Holbrook) and Rainey's companion, Jan (Catherine Keener), who
seems both carefree and careworn.

Chris reminds some of these people of their own lost children, but all
of them respond to something about him: an open, guileless quality, at
once earnest and playful, that Mr. Hirsch conveys with intuitive
grace. "You look like a loved kid," Jan says, and "Into the Wild"
bears that out in nearly every scene.

He is loved, not least, by Mr. Penn, who has shown himself, in three
previous films ("The Indian Runner," "The Crossing Guard" and "The
Pledge") to be a thoughtful and skilled director. He still is, but
this story seems to have liberated him from the somber seriousness
that has been his hallmark as a filmmaker until now. "Into the Wild"
is a movie about the desire for freedom that feels, in itself, like
the fulfillment of that desire.

Which is not to say that there is anything easy or naïve in what Mr.
Penn has done. "Into the Wild" is, on the contrary, alive to the
mysteries and difficulties of experience in a way that very few recent
American movies have been. There are some awkward moments and
infelicitous touches — a few too many Eddie Vedder songs on the
soundtrack, for example, when Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copland or dead
silence might have been more welcome — but the film's imperfection,
like its grandeur, arises from a passionate, generous impulse that is
as hard to resist as the call of the open road.

"Into the Wild" is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or
adult guardian). It has profanity, brief nudity and some violent or
otherwise upsetting scenes.


Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.

Directed by Sean Penn; written by Mr. Penn, based on the book by Jon
Krakauer; director of photography, Eric Gautier; edited by Jay
Cassidy; score by Michael Brook with songs and additional music by
Eddie Vedder and Kaki King; production designer, Derek R. Hill;
produced by Mr. Penn, Art Linson and Bill Pohlad; released by
Paramount Vantage. Running time: 140 minutes.

WITH: Emile Hirsch (Christopher McCandless), Marcia Gay Harden (Billie
McCandless), William Hurt (Walt McCandless), Jena Malone (Carine),
Brian Dierker (Rainey), Catherine Keener (Jan Burres), Vince Vaughn
(Wayne Westerberg), Kristen Stewart (Tracy) and Hal Holbrook (Ron