The road ahead
Sean Penn's 'Into the Wild' tracks a young man's wanderlust and its tragic ending
The holy fool occupies a special place in the American imagination. The twin myths of the self-made man and the endless frontier sustain us even when - especially when - the evidence isn't there, and we itch to flee the corruptions of civilization into a purer, better land. Out of this romance have come the Pilgrims, the pioneers, Henry Thoreau, Jack Kerouac - the Mormons and the hippies and everyone else hoping to cleanse the taint. Out of it, too, have come the Unabomber and the Branch Davidians.
In "Into the Wild," his long, indulgent, often moving adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction bestseller, Sean Penn weighs whether Christopher McCandless was a holy man or a fool and comes down on the side of the angels. Unfolding in chapters, the hero's journal entries scrawled along the bottom of the frame, the film is a lyric ode to wanderlust and youthful idealism, with a prideful certainty in its rejection of society that puts it in line with another adolescent classic, J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye."
Penn's hero has some of Holden Caulfield's DNA in his genes, and some of his fury at the phonies, but ultimately this Christopher is a young knight whose tragedy absolves and sanctifies him. "Into the Wild" is Penn's best and most ambitious work as a director, but the movie's not about recklessness, and it probably should have been.
McCandless died of starvation in September 1992, in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness near Denali National Park. He had lived 113 days in the wild, arriving there after a two-year sojourn around America. A child of middle-class privilege, he had graduated from college, donated his life savings to Oxfam, and disappeared off the grid, renaming himself "Alexander Supertramp" and avoiding contact with his family.
In the movie, McCandless is played by Emile Hirsch ("Alpha Dog") with an all-knowing earnestness tempered by jets of righteous anger. He's running from his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), who represent the hypocrisy of mainstream America: the insistence on appearances and the self-absorbed materialism beneath. The movie barely grants these two humanity; they're deluded horrors who, it's implied, deserve the punishment of their son's disappearance.
The people Christopher meets on the road, by contrast, are the true Americans: a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) who become the boy's surrogate parents; a raffish grain farmer (Vince Vaughn); a teenage girl (Kristen Stewart) who pines for him. In the film's loveliest and simplest segment, Christopher befriends a retired scientist played by Hal Holbrook, and the two knock around the desert for a few weeks, the old man trying to pull the boy back into human connection and the boy gently resisting.
These sequences are gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Eric Gautier, and they're heady with the joy of discovery - they make you want to hit the road into the magnificent landscape we forget is out there. As Christopher treks ever outward, though, there's no corresponding journey inward; his travels only make him more unyielding. When Stewart's Tracy offers herself to this beautiful young saint of the open highway, he declines, saying it would defile her innocence. In fact, it's Christopher's own purity he wants to maintain, and with it a fatal distance from other people.
Penn knows that, and he acknowledges as much in the final moments of "Into the Wild." In general, though, he loves his hero too much to sort out his own feelings. The result is a road movie oddly lacking in the exuberance of the road; the tone is occasionally as dour and scolding as Eddie Vedder's unadorned songs on the soundtrack. Yet Penn's fascination with Christopher is genuine and legitimate. What does it take to go on a vision quest in modern America? Whose fault is it if the journey ends in death?
Only an American could have made this "Into the Wild" - impassioned, broad, unexamined. (Correction: Only an American from the Lower 48, since many Alaskans apparently consider McCandless an idiot of classic proportions.) To stand outside our myths and see them with a cold eye requires a director like Werner Herzog, whose 2005 documentary "Grizzly Man" contains all the lucid, bothersome paradoxes Penn's movie only guesses at.
One such paradox, which "Into the Wild" doesn't note, is that those who flee civilization more often than not bring it with them. The bus in which Christopher McCandless died is now a tourist destination.