~Into The Wild

Into The Wild-poster

Into The Wild


Film Review
September 21, 2007 by JAN ALBERT

Every once in a rare while you connect with a film in a profound way. INTO THE WILD, written and directed by Sean Penn, hit me right between the eyes.

It’s a highly compressed coming of age story – a true one, based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, about a kid who graduates college with honors, then out of the blue, completely rejects his family’s and society’s offerings, donates his life savings to charity, and leaves home without a word. He hits the road with the ultimate goal of disappearing into the wild to “try to get his soul free” (as Joni Mitchell put it).

Chris McCandless kept a journal of his experiences along the way – the books he read, the day jobs he held, the people he met, the plants he ate, and they provided the trail for Krakauer to retrace. Penn originally tried to make this film a decade ago, shortly after the book came out. He met with the family a number of times to seek permission to film their son’s story. The day of the final negotiation he got a call from Chris’s mother. She said she had had a dream that she interpreted as meaning her son did not want a film made about his life and death. Penn replied that if he didn’t believe in dreams he wouldn’t be making movies, but if they ever changed their minds – “In a week, 8 months, or even 10 years, to please call me because I will never stop wanting to make this movie.” Ten years later, they called.

The wait was worth it. This is the best film Sean Penn has ever made. I’m not quite sure why it hit me so hard – I was never interested enough in the story to read the book — but there were several times tears came to my eyes and to my utter amazement, I wasn’t sure I would be able to stop crying. (After all the movies I’ve seen over the past 30 years, I remain always hopeful but have become a fairly hard-hearted viewer!)

Penn draws piercing performances from everyone in his superb cast – Catherine Keener, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Vince Vaughan, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook, and Emile Hirsch all bring their best game and Penn has given each one of them moments that stick in my mind. But I think his greatest achievement here is to involve you in a story with an end that so many people already know and to deliver a tension-filled experience that keeps you wondering what will happen next and even has moments of humor.
The storytelling, both visually and editorially, is riveting; going back and forth to Chris’s childhood at home and his adventures enroute to the end of the road in the Alaska wilderness. In addition to the stark beauty of the American landscape, Penn references the journal of Alexander Supertramp (as Chris renamed himself) and the post cards he sent new friends he made. Seeing his handwriting up on the screen is a very effective device for putting us right inside his head.

Penn is also to be commended for approaching human frailties and moments of kindness with drama, but also real subtlety. None of the characters are completely black or white. We feel for the McCandless parents Chris rejected so completely. While their physical fights and the war of words they carried on throughout his childhood probably propelled him to avoid and mistrust human relationships whenever possible, we see that they are only human, not bad people per se. William Hurt (playing Chris’s father) has a wordless scene towards the end, which is absolutely devastating.

Chris himself is no saint. In the beginning, he is portrayed as a kind of an arrogant kid, a zealot who listens to no one and believes he knows it all before he’s even experienced life. We see him gradually responding to the coworkers and fellow travelers he meets on the way to Alaska — a joyful big brother figure, a young girl who worships him, a hippie couple who adopt him for a time, and even a substitute grandfather (simply a beautiful performance by Hal Holbrook).

But the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Emile Hirsch who rises to the occasion, climbs the mountain and carries this film. He made me come to care for this foolhardy, wounded boy who put his faith and found his greatest joy in the beauty and harsh force of nature. As he tests himself against primal forces (ultimately more unforgiving and unpredictable than us human beings), experiencing the agony and ecstasy of the path he’s chosen, he grows and cracks open. Chris’s heartbreaking innocence and purity of character, his great quest, and the heartbreaking fact that he realized how much we need each other so late in the game moved me deeply.

That’s a revelation many of us live a lot longer without ever reaching. Bravo Sean Penn for turning a short but full life into a great film with not a minute wasted.

see: the official website