I’ll be the first to admit, that I like a lot of movies. In point of fact, my DVD collection is currently at 312. But that aside, it’s not very often that I see a movie I truly love: a movie that inspires me to be better or try harder (however cheesy that may sound). The first time I saw Into the Wild, I was blown away. Emile Hirsch’s performance as the ultimately doomed Alaskan adventurer, Christopher McCandless, is mesmerizing. I imagine a lot of people know someone like the character of Chris, a new-experience junkie who has a gripe with materialism. Many of these people may tend towards a drifter existence, causing them to shower and shave less, therefore giving them that icky hippie vibe. Chris McCandless wasn’t a hippie though (especially since he lived in the 80’s and 90’s), but it would be easy to write him off as one. Through reading Jon Krakauer’s original book Into the Wild as well as the real Chris McCandless’ diary, Director Sean Penn was able to show a character that in spite of his incredible gift with people, in the end, was left entirely alone.
Many readers have dismissed McCandless’ story as nothing more than the tale of an irresponsible and arrogant boy who got whathe deserved by thinking he could conquer nature without the proper tools. Even the Alaskan rangers said if he’d only taken a map with a list of the emergency cabins on it (one of which was down the river from his campsite), the story would have ended differently. Ultimately what I took away from this film and this story had nothing to do with the ending, that was just a detail. The film felt like taking the ride you always wanted to go on but never did, the one where at the end, you would sit and reflect on “what a long, strange trip it’d been.” The movie consists of an incredible supporting cast alongside Hirsch, most notably old-timer Hal Holbrook, newcomer Kristen Stewart and narrator Jena Malone. Malone's soothing voice, as Chris' sister, glides through the film, giving you insights to the boy he was before he became the drifter we see now (this is Hirsch and Malone's second film together, they played boyfriend and girlfriend in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys). The film flashes back to blurred Polaroid colored shots of Chris and his sister growing up in a home of deceit under their parents, played by veterans Marcia Gay Harden and the always wonderful William Hurt. We're led to believe that because of Chris' lack of respect for them not just as parents, but as people, that this led directly to his descent into the wild.
Chris gives his savings to charity, burns what cash he has, abandons his car on a beach, and leaves the life he knew behind. As he meets people, like Jan (Catherine Keener) and Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and whoever else happens across his path, and starts rambling on about the merits of having nothing, there are times when you want to write him off or even smack him upside the head. "He's just some annoying kid who's read too many books for his own good," you'll say. Part of that's true, but he grows on you, to the point where I could not get this character out of my head. To see someone so incredibly free, and yet not at all, really does make you reflect on yourself and what does ultimately matter the most. We see that Chris has a way of making people fall in love with him without trying, whether they're a married hippie couple in a rut, a scheming business man, a grandchildless grandfather, or a 15 year old love struck girl. He's the metal and they're all magnets. He could do anything, and yet we find him serving fries or cutting wheat just to make enough cash so he can hoof it to Alaska.
Sean Penn directs with a clear vision not only of McCandless, but of his expansive and often breathtaking surroundings. The film is beautifully shot, bringing you on that cross country road trip you keep telling yourself you'll take. Chris, who sets out with unwavering determination to abandon his parents and make it to Alaska, finds himself being unexpectedly affected by the strangers he meets, and even more taken aback when he realizes all his theories, notions and beliefs mean nothing without someone to share them with. One of the most heartbreaking and perfectly performed parts of the film is when Chris meets Ron Franz (Holbrook), an elderly man who takes him into his home. Their friendship is pivotal for both men, and ultimately leads to one of the best scenes in the film. But, as I said before, despite all the people he encounters who try to show him how important family is, Chris ends up trapped in the wilderness alone. But as Malone's narration tells us, he needed to escape, and he needed to go to Alaska to do it. I truly don't want to give too much away, especially since the film has a million memorable "must see" parts, but I can tell you, it all makes for one hell of a movie.
Short and Sweet
I literally cannot lavish enough praise on this film, and I cannot recommend enough. For all Penn's onscreen credits, his turn as a director in this will be the most memorable for me. Hirsch is just... bangarang.
"Mr. Franz, I think careers are a 20th century invention and I don't want one."
"You're a super apple! And I'm a supertramp."