This is an expanded and revised version of a review that first appeared online in March 2008. This piece was updated July 5, with new paragraphs on the psychoanalytical angle and the possible idealization of Chris McCandless’ destiny.
It feels about right to do a write-up on Sean Penn’s Into the Wild on the Fourth of July, not only for it’s quintessentially American optimism and embrace of the adventurous and heroic individual, but also for being one of the most geographically wide-ranging cinematic celebrations of the American heartland ever captured on film.
I say this as a guy who nurtures an almost insurmountable skepticism toward movies about the brave individual who battles nature in search of survival and/0r some higher purpose. So deeply rooted was my skepticism, that after having watched and loved Into The Wild the first time around, I half-assumed that it had more to do with my still developing Emile Hirsch crush than with the movie itself. Previous experience told me that I was too much of a cynic to embrace the almost Romanticist idealism of Into The Wild, particularly since it was directed by Sean Penn, a man famous for creating transparently self-righteous and moralistic movies in the vein of The Pledge. But now, having watched it a second, third and even fourth time, I have learned to appreciate exactly the things about it that I thought I would hate. It’s frequently more subtle and multi-layered than expected, and even where it fails to create the necessary emotional and intellectual distance, it still succeeds in asking a lot of interesting questions. All this, of course, without failing to capitalize generously on my satisfaction with getting to see Emile Hirsch push his well-honed body to its physical limits.
Into The Wild has been accused of idealizing what could be argued to be Chris’ quite irresponsible break with his family and society at large, and even his death. but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ask intriguing and interesting questions. Excuse me for repeating myself, but like so many other great movies, Into the Wild is just as interesting for its flaws as for its triumphs. In her fairly positive review, Slate’s Dana Stevens led my attention to a flaw that I had somehow ignored in my initial response to the movie. Here, she points out how cheap unconvincing – even unnecessary – the subplot about Chris’ supposedly abusive father (contradicted in the Jon Krakauer book the movie is based upon) is:
In an attempt, perhaps, to justify Chris’ decision not to communicate with his parents for more than two years (…) Penn inserts a flashback back story that shows the McCandless’ relationship as abusive and violent. It’s a Lifetime TV rule that this movie should have risen above: Every questionable moral action must be explained by an equal and opposite childhood trauma. In Krakauer’s account, McCandless’s father, Walt, was something of a remote perfectionist but certainly no wife-beater
By ultimately doubling down on the psychoanalytical angle, he in my opinion makes Chris a less interesting character than he really was. Of course, the task of making us accept Chris’ radical quest would have been made even harder if such emotional shorthands were not used, but it would had been better in keeping with the mystification of human nature and the glowing individualism that movies embraces in other key scenes. The questions to come from such an approach might have been even more interesting.
That said, I’m not sure if I’m the right guy to give such advice. I suspect it would have taken me some time to accept his ambition no matter how clear or unclear his reasons might have been presented to us: He’s stubborn, convinced and idealistic, sure, but isn’t he also something of a self-absorbed egotist, a little too aware of his place in history? The intellectual and emotional tension that this feeling creates only heightens when he encounters the hippie couple Jan and Rainey (played by Catherine Keener and Bryan Drieker, respectively). While generally sympathetic to his project, they are the first two people to seriously challenge his reasoning. Jan, instantly inserting herself as a mother figure to Chris, tells him of the pain she struggles with every day, due to having a son who took off just like him, and urges him to re-establish contact with his family (‘You look like a loved kid’, she says). The fact that Jan uses what’s perhaps the most provocative source of knowledge at her disposal – her life experience and the perception that with age comes wisdom – of course makes it easier for an unrepentant individualist like Chris to dismiss, but it nonetheless spells out the most interesting question of the whole movie: Who are you responsible for?
Some would hold him responsible for the pain and sadness he inflicts on his family, but even if the answer is that his only responsibility is himself, then shouldn’t he at least be responsible for leading a life that would bring him satisfaction without running the risk of killing himself? It may be frustrating to Chris, but he receives several warnings and advice along the way, even from people initially sympathetic to his dream of independence and self-realization.
But in a sense they all know, even the old and lonely Ron (magnificently portrayed by Hal Holbrook), whom Chris meets in the mountains of North Dakota, that the young man’s steely resolve will not bow to anything or anyone. Chris is happy to receive advice, but he will only follow it if fits in with his own perspective. Therefore, it is Ron who, after having had a deeply moving conversation with Chris at the top of a mountain about life as it is and life as it should have been, is forced to ultimately give up on his impulse to hold Chris back. It’s an especially moving scene because of how seamlessly the movie cuts between before and during the expedition, giving every word a sense of destiny.
And this is what surprised me so much about this movie. What still elevates this movie from good to great for me, apart from extraordinary performances from the entire cast, is how Sean Penn fulfills the emotional (and visual) core of the story; the same man vs. elements component that bored me to the brink of death while – excruciatingly slowly – tearing down Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Whatever you may think of Chris’ path in life, or his moral obligations to himself or others, it’s almost impossible not to share in the immediate sense of purpose the majestic Alaska landscape inspires. It’s so beautifully shot, and performed with such convincing intensity by Hirsch, that for a moment, I actually thought this was Man’s final victory over Nature. But it isn’t, of course. It may not sound like all that much, but to me, the key scene, in which Chris kills and the slowly and methodically butchers a moose, doesn’t stand back in any way to the epic quality and ambition of the universally praised (and deservedly so) opening scene of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Of course, one could argue that the heroism of these scenes, along with the sentimentalism of the continuing quotes of American nature writing, positions Chris as something of a martyr. I wouldn’t go quite as far as A.O. Scott of The New York Times in dismissing this argument, but even if the movie somehow romanticizes his death, I’m not sure if I think that’s a big problem. Instead of criticizing Penn for lacking the proper distance to the story, it could be argued that he simply trusts the viewers to make up their minds for themselves, much like Gus van Sant did in his controversial, Columbine-channeling Elephant (2003).
That said, I suppose that the mere fact that a cynic like could be won over by Into The Wild, indicates that it will continue to be a movie that splits it’s audience. Like me, many will appreciate it as an intellectually and aesthetically accomplished road movie by foot, while others could be expected to dismiss it, due to some of the things that I’ve touched upon only briefly; the slightly over-interpretive and curiously poetic voice-over of Chris’ younger sister in the first half; the somewhat cheap and unconvincing Freudian hangup; or they may find the dialogue to be pompous, where I thought it was beautifully idealistic and thought-provoking. And I would encourage anyone who’s inclined to write off Into The Wild as too sentimental (the fact that I’m generally no foe of sentimentality if used with care and purpose is a topic for another day) to take another look at the surprisingly subtle and sweet way in which the movie handles its obligatory love story.
In a way, I suspect whether you’re able to accept and enjoy Eddie Vedder’s simple and earnest folk rock soundtrack could serve as the final litmus test for whether you’ll end up loving or flat-out loathe this movie. In part to prove a point, and partly because I couldn’t find a better way to pay tribute to one of the best movies of recent years. I’ll simple end by quoting the opening verse of his song Society, which seamlessly intertwines with the powers of the story and its imagery to sum up the meaning of it all, in this always interesting, never cynical and often exceptional film:
“It’s a mystery to me
We have a greed with which we have agreed
and you think you have to want more than you need
Until you have it all
you won’t be free
You’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me”