To some, the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, the 24-year-old Emory University graduate who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992, will never be anything more than a case of a spoiled bourgeois brat with half-cocked survivalist fantasies (and possible suicidal tendencies) who ran away from home and got exactly what he deserved. To others, McCandless stirs up thoughts of the intrepid explorers who once ventured forth into undiscovered lands, and of the wanderlust, the rage against the societal machine, and the thirst for what the author Jon Krakauer has termed "raw, transcendent experience." So what if all the earthly frontiers — the physical ones, anyway — appear to have been conquered?
At the time of its 1996 publication, Krakauer's book about McCandless, Into the Wild, sparked a predictable array of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. It is to the credit of Sean Penn that his film version will provoke no less animated a debate about its subject, and about its very existence as a movie — which can be construed as a further cashing-in on the McCandless family's tragedy, or as the ideal vessel for a story about one man's communion with the last remaining wide-open spaces of the American West.
To these eyes, Into the Wild is an unusually soulful and poetic movie that crystallizes McCandless in all his glittering enigma. It allows us to decide for ourselves whether he was the spiritual son of Thoreau, Tolstoy, and John Muir, or the boy most likely to become Theodore Kaczynski. Like Krakauer, Penn has conceived McCandless' story in road-movie terms — a new-millennium Easy Rider that opens with McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) embarking on the Alaskan pilgrimage that was to have been the final leg of a two-year transcontinental adventure. Then the film loops back to McCandless' college graduation and his attempt to pacify his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) by promising to apply to Harvard Law School. But no sooner does McCandless toss his mortarboard hat into the air than he sets about the symbolic desecration of credit cards and ID, the donation of his entire life savings to Oxfam, and the severing of all ties with family and friends.
In between those bookends, Into the Wild takes to the highways and back roads of places named Niland, Carthage, Slab City, and Oh My God Hotsprings, capturing a vivid panorama of burnouts, dropouts, and other self-proclaimed "tramps" who have gone in search of something more — or less — than mainstream society can afford them. As I write that, I realize it risks making Into the Wild sound like two and a half hours of hippie-dippy philosophizing courtesy of one of conservative America's favorite Hollywood-liberal punching bags. But Penn's film burns with native intelligence, never tipping too far into hagiography, and always doing what very few purveyors of McCandless' story have been able or willing to do: engaging with him on his own terms.
As screenwriter, Penn has done a superb job of giving shape and dimension to characters who passed only fleetingly through Krakauer's pages — the fellow travelers McCandless encountered on his journey and whose lives, in some cases, he irrevocably altered. They include the South Dakota grain-elevator operator Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn); the neo-hippie earth mother Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), who sees in Chris — who was by then calling himself Alexander Supertramp — the ghost of her own estranged teenage son; and the octogenarian widower Ron Franz, played by Hal Holbrook in a performance that is as much a thing of beauty as any of the film's ravishingly photographed widescreen western vistas.
Penn also seems more engaged with the language of cinema here than in any of his previous directorial efforts (which include the excellent The Pledge and the overwrought The Crossing Guard). He freely toys with form (multiple narrators, passages of text scrawled across the screen) in a way that sometimes feels self-conscious, but which lends Into the Wild the sense of experimentation that emboldened the great American films of the 1970s. It is a feeling enhanced by the presence of several original songs composed and performed by Eddie Vedder, which do not merely regurgitate the story of the film but in fact are integral to the telling of it. Most of all, Penn allows Hirsch the space he needs to build a performance of enormous physical and psychological rigor.
The criticisms of Into the Wild are easy to anticipate. Is the movie too long? Probably, at least by that hallowed yardstick that says a film must move rapidly from Point A to Point B — something McCandless himself was in no hurry to do. Is the film less than judicious with respect to McCandless' parents and sister, who exist in the film mostly as fragments of memory, phantoms of a discarded existence? Arguably so, until you consider that during his entire two years on the road, McCandless failed to place so much as a single phone call home. Part of the enduring fascination with McCandless, of course, is that his story tends to mean considerably different things depending on where you're standing — whether you are parent or child, restless wanderer or happy conformist. Penn's triumph is that he manages to see McCandless as boy and man, prophet and fraud, vagabond and visionary. Which is, I suspect, awfully close to how McCandless saw himself.