The premise sounds straight out of the Darwin Awards: boy graduates from college, gives all his money to charity and goes out to “find himself,” only to starve to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
Yet Into the Wild is a brilliant film, packed with insight and delivered with staggering intensity.
The film stars Emile Hirsch as Christopher Johnson McCandless, who later renames himself Alexander Supertramp to better fit his new, vagrant lifestyle. McCandless obtains his college degree only to assuage his parents, whose epic dysfunction is slowly revealed throughout the narrative. Floating around the country, McCandless befriends fellow wanderers of rural America—portrayed by an incredible supporting cast—while striving to remain a loner.
Sean Penn wrote and directed this adaptation of John Krakauer’s book of the same title. The film feels assured in its themes of exploration and experience. And while Penn’s techniques are rarely subtle, they are always effective in their aims. One extended scene depicts McCandless enjoying a shower in the wilderness, caught in slow-motion and high-definition, allowing the viewer to focus on every drop of water. The shot of mundane activity seems gratuitous; however, transplanted to the wilderness, it expresses the exceptional, strange beauty of the moment.
Penn has relinquished the solemn tone that marked his earlier films, expanding the permitted emotional range in which actors develop their characters. In another memorable scene, McCandless talks to an apple about its deliciousness; Penn inserts one of the few visible cuts in the film, preparing the audience for a suspension of reality, allowing Hirsch multiple takes and the freedom to break the fourth wall by looking toward the camera. Similar techniques in the film evince Penn’s growing talent and maturity as a film-maker.
Although Into the Wild contains many tragedies, the film is better characterized by the passion of its characters. McCandless’s endless travels from North Dakota to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico evoke existential road movies circa 1970, such as Two-Lane Blacktop and Easy Rider, but the comparison is shallow, beyond the innovation of the directors involved. The deaths ending the latter film, for instance, are abrupt, violent, senseless and ultimately meaningless. McCandless’s death is needless in many respects, but it does not mark a failure to find perspective; instead, the ending’s affective finality is overshadowed by a soaring sense of hope, fraught with meaning.
Sean Penn has crafted a lovely portrait to a fellow traveler, capturing McCandless in the parts of America no one sees. The shots of the landscape are so strikingly beautiful they let the audience understand, at least partially, McCandless’s motivations. Mr. Penn renders McCandless convincingly, exposing his disarmingly idiosyncratic personality. Although the sobering aftermath of McCandless’s adventure is cautionary, undoubtedly someone will be inspired by this film to head west, or perhaps north to Alaska.