Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
Watching Sean Penn’s masterful and mysterious Into the Wild, I couldn't help but think of Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man. That movie followed grizzly bear enthusiast Timothy Treadwell, a man so obsessed with living among bears that he lost contact with reality. Things ended tragically for him just as they do for the man at the center of Into the Wild. Controversy surrounded Treadwell’s work, just as it did for Into The Wild's Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. When he was 23, McCandless traveled to Alaska, never to return. He died of starvation outside of Fairbanks in October 1992.
I didn't know much about McCandless as I went into this screening. A friend who had read Jon Krakauer's book filled me in on the basics, including the split opinion on McCandless – some think he's a moron, while others think he's courageous.
Writer/director Sean Penn falls into the latter category, and that makes sense.
Penn's a rebel, just like McCandless, but despite that knowledge, I didn't know what to expect from this movie. Would this be a standard-issue, Jack London-style human interest survival story? The prospect of that wearied me. Don't get me wrong – I love watching the rugged Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild, but I didn't know if I could handle those kinds of antics for an entire movie.
But within minutes I began to realize that Penn was in total control of his subject. By the end, I saw that he had delivered a movie reminiscent of the great films of the 70s.
At the start of the movie, Chris McCandless is just another privileged rich kid. A recent graduate of Emory University, he's poised to be a doctor or CEO. Instead, he leaves to travel the country on what he calls his "great Alaskan adventure." After he vanishes, he ignores his family and thwarts their efforts to find him, even going so far as to change his name to Alexander Supertramp.
Why does he do this? That's one of the best things about the movie – it doesn't tell us. This movie eschews cheap pop psychology or blind conjecture and instead simply follows the chronicle in McCandless' own journal, which he kept almost all the way up to his death.
Reviewing a film like Into The Wild is difficult because it’s not so much interested in plot as it is in mood. I'll say this, though: this movie evokes feelings that most films shy away from. As Chris works his way through the country, he encounters several people who will connect with him in ways that his parents were never able to. We learn though narration by Jena Malone (who plays McCandless’ sister), that their parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) often had fights that left her and Chris empty inside. They try to buy their kids' happiness with expensive toys, but no amount of money can compete with the satisfaction McCandless finds working for a farmer (played by Vince Vaughn), hanging out with two old hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), or hitching a ride with an old dude (Hal Holbrook).
Those are the bones of this story: human relationships. Penn guides us through McCandless' transient relationships, all while cutting back to his abandoned bus in the wilderness. This device unifies what could have been a scattershot narrative. Still, as the audience, our question remains: Why doesn't McCandless stay with any of these cool people? The movie offers no definitive answers, other than the quiet suggestion that he had to learn how important human relationships are himself. In the end Chris writes, “Happiness is nothing if not shared with someone.” Chris may have learned this lesson long before most people his age.
For a movie that has loads of plot to chew on, Into the Wild is all about feelings, with a spiritual, elegiac essence that elevates the movie above its subject matter. Performing in this movie must have been an enormous challenge, and Emile Hirsch answers that challenge by subsuming himself to his role. The same goes for all of the performances. Whenever Penn introduces a new character, it's like we've met them on the road ourselves. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker could have an entire movie to themselves. Vince Vaughn avoids shtick and nails every down-home tic in his South Dakotan farmer, a guy who's visited the wild side once too often.
And good old Hal Holbrook. What do we say about this old pro? The onetime Deep Throat returns to A-list acting with a performance engineered to put lumps in throats.
All of these characters inhabit a world created by Penn that exists somewhere between here and the independent films of the 70s, where creativity reigned supreme. Into the Wild takes us on a journey through Americana that we haven’t seen in a long time, and it heads right into the soul of McCandless’ journey. It understands that that journey was much more about life than death.
Into The Wild is the best American film of the year and one of the best films of the decade.