Into the Wild


The Terrible Follies of Youth

Main Cast: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook

Director: Sean Penn

First, an admission. I waited for Into the Wild for ten years. That’s right, ten years. As soon as I finished the book I wanted to see this story on film, wanted to see how a filmmaker would present this life. And thus, I went into the theater with high, high expectations, and even higher hopes. And as we all know, this is a big movie no-no. No matter what a filmmaker does with the material, it can’t possibly achieve the lofty greatness built up in your mind over such a long period of time. I was destined to be disappointed. Except……I wasn’t. I know – I can’t quite believe it either, but Into the Wild absolutely knocks my socks off. It’s brilliant.

Into the Wild details two years in the life of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch). Raised in a difficult family situation, Chris has always toed the line, even while chafing against it so hard he nearly bleeds. We enter as he graduates from Emory University – an outstanding student facing a lifetime of possibilities. We meet his sister (Jenna Malone) and parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt). We see him tangle with his parents and understand clearly that this isn’t the first time. Chris McCandless needs to be free, to live the life he’s sure he wants, one that does not, in any way, conform to that which his parents have envisioned.

So Chris hits the road. Through various bits of voice-over narration from both Chris and his sister, we learn about this idealistic young man. As he travels from place to place with only a vague goal at first of living without the encumbrance of the life he left behind, we feel his youth. From the quotes he chooses to define himself to his completely unjaded outlook on life choices to the views of his sister about his struggle to be free of his past, we come to really know this young man. Chris is a full, complete character, with qualities both good and bad, who makes choices both well and poorly. He is also something of a mythical figure.

Emile Hirsch by David Shankbone
Emile Hirsch

Those qualities don’t seem congruent – a character that is painfully real yet also vaguely dream-like. But screenwriter/director Sean Penn does a remarkable thing with Chris McCandless. He takes the story of a very real young man, a story originally told in print by Jon Krakauer, and preserves the elements of Chris McCandless while synthesizing and crystallizing his personality and temperament into a character in which anyone – everyone – can see a bit of themselves or someone they love.

Chris McCandless becomes the distillation of youth in all its glorious exuberance, that fleeting time when we feel immortal and in awe of the opportunities life presents, and we know, without question, that we are capable of anything. It’s a time when the past dims and the future seems blindingly bright.

Some would consider this the very definition of the arrogance of youth. But Chris isn’t arrogant. He’s filled with hope and the wonder of his surrounding, whatever they may be. He draws strangers to him on his travels with his optimism, self assurance and eagerness to experience, just experience. For many of these people, across many states and in many situations, he fills a void. He gives people the gift of things lost and the hope of things to come.

He takes no advantage, he doesn’t scheme or use, his focus is inward, on his own journey. With his unflinching conviction that the world is ours for the taking if we only take a risk and experience it, he’s a magnet for those who may otherwise find themselves lost or lonely. That many of his quotes, sayings and life mottos are hopelessly immature and naive is unimportant in the long run. He utters and believes them with such earnest intensity that it’s impossible not to hope he achieves his every goal.

Sean Penn by Seher Sikhandar
Sean Penn

Sean Penn has put together an incredible movie – and not only because his main character is a masterful representation of the glories and foibles of youth. The film also successfully represents two distinct time periods. Chris determines quickly that his goal is to travel to Alaska and live there, in the wild. So we see parallel stories, switching focus from one to the other, of his time on the road and the time he spends alone in the Alaskan wilderness.

Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier bring us straight into every setting. Shot almost entirely on location, everything from vast deserts to the concrete conglomeration of travelers known as Slab City to the glorious Alaskan wilds is photographed with equal and meticulous care and attention to detail. A snow capped Alaskan mountain is no more or less important than is a rather monstrous man-made structure known as Salvation Mountain perched atop a pile of concrete within view of an old military base. Every shot has the awe-inspiring feel of seeing something new and brilliant for the first time.

As we come to know Chris, we see things as he does, with fresh eyes and unspoiled wonder. He may be running away from the constrictions and anger that filled his childhood, but Chris is able to appreciate a moment like only a young person feeling the first tastes of real freedom honestly can. It’s almost intoxicating.

Into the Wild would never work on film without just the right actor in the lead role. Emile Hirsch plays Chris with boundless generosity of spirit as well as a mostly hidden pain that drives his flight and makes his journey both possible and, for him, necessary. Hirsch not only resembles the man Chris McCandless physically but is able to make this character embody the vision of Sean Penn. He seems to feel no limits, believe every single one of Chris’ painfully idealistic and unrealistic bits of philosophy and throw himself without question into his character.

Penn has surrounded Hirsch with group of supporting actors whose immense talents are subtle and real – each embodies the soul of their character. Catherine Keener as an erstwhile hippie living on the road, Hurt and Harden as parents who inflict damage without understanding, Malone as a sister who understands why her brother chooses to disappear, but feels abandoned nonetheless, Vince Vaughn playing to his strengths as a big-hearted, larger than life farmer on the vast Midwestern plains.

Each and every one, without exception, gives a rock solid performance. Some have more to do than others, but all are important to Chris in some way, and all bring their considerable talents to bear in full force, regardless of their amount of time on screen. The single slip is the occasional clumsy narration from Malone, but given the difficulty of the technique she does a creditable job and any gaffs do nothing to harm the film.

Without question the single most outstanding supporting performance comes from veteran actor Hal Holbrook. His character is funny, gruff and will ultimately break your heart. An amazing performance from an actor not afraid to play immense vulnerability. Holbrook digs deep into this role and it shows on his face, in his voice, in his posture. Not one of the actors involved in Into the Wild has forgotten that the people they are playing are real and the story they are all ultimately telling is true – they treat these characters and their lives with respect in every frame.

Sean Penn has managed, with his film version of Into the Wild, to take a source material with which I became fascinated years and years ago and turn it into something deeper, more poignant, and more compelling than I could have ever hoped. While it has been some years now since I first read Jon Krakauer’s book, I can’t help but feel that Penn captures a universal essence that Krakauer did not. He catches youth in a bottle, and lets Chris McCandless, a real man, represent something fleeting and sublime. A word of advice to those who have read the book and are considering seeing the film with someone who has not – don’t tell them any story details. Let it all play out for them on the screen. Penn has chosen not to follow one of Krakauer’s major storytelling conventions – so don’t spoil a minute of the experience for the uninitiated.

Into the Wild is a beautiful movie, of which Sean Penn and everyone involved should be immensely proud. It moves at its own pace, and is most definitely not a film for the impatient, but patience in this case is rewarded many times over. If you have a chance to see Into the Wild on the big screen, jump at it – the visuals are breathtaking. It’s a spectacular film, one I could not recommend more highly.

photos by David Shankbone and Seher Sikhandar

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