Into the Wild is a one-sided endeavor

by Mark Burger

It’s easy to see what drew screenwriter/director Sean Penn to Into the Wild, a story of individualism, of idealism, and of seeing and experiencing America in a fashion not unlike John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac – with all the peril that such comparisons entail.

This is the true story of Christopher McCandless, played in the film by Emile Hirsch and immortalized literarily in Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction best-seller of the same title.

Christopher is/was a bright-eyed college graduate who celebrated his liberation from the trappings of academia by cutting all ties from his family and embarking on what was his perception of the American Experience.

Forsaking wealth and identity, Christopher bums around the United States, meeting people high and low, immersing himself in the classics to feed his intellectual and emotional hunger. His ultimate goal – his destiny, if you will (as it turns out) – was to live in the midst of the Alaskan wilderness. And it was there, in August 1992, that he would die.

Beautifully filmed and acted, Into the Wild is also a one-sided endeavor. Although the demons that plagued Christopher’s life are hinted at – and strongly hinge on his relationship with his parents (played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) – the film is much more concerned with commemorating and revering him.

That’s all well and good, and such intentions are unquestionably noble, but there’s also the nagging fact that he was woefully, tragically unprepared to deal with life in the Alaskan wilderness – and it cost him his life. As a result, there’s a slightly bitter aftertaste to the film. Christopher’s journey of self-discovery is filled with wonder at the world around him, yet the journey ends abruptly, with so much life yet to be lived.

As Christopher’s sister, Jena Malone would have almost nothing to do were it not for the narration she provides throughout the film, lending some insight into what Christopher’s family is going through while he embarks on his great American adventure.

Perhaps because he’s an actor himself, and one of unquestionable talent, Penn has always had an ability to coax good work from his actors. Hirsch is certainly empathetic as Christopher, but it’s the vivid supporting performances that color this film in shades of intermittent greatness.

Kristen Stewart, as the teenaged songbird who falls for Christopher, gives what is undoubtedly the highlight of her still-early, big-screen career. There’s splendid work also from Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn (rarely better) and particularly from Hal Holbrook, whose late-inning turn as a retired Army widower who befriends Christopher is the sort of small but pivotal role that deserves to be remembered at Academy Award time – as much for the consistent resilience and reliability of Holbrook’s screen career as for the gentle beauty and truth he imbues his role with.

Still, this is what adds to the film’s poetic and haunting tone, realized with tact, sincerity and (happily) some humor by Penn’s screenplay and direction. Into the Wild could have been an incredible downer. For the most part, thanks to the palpable care that went into it – from both sides of the camera – it’s just the opposite.

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