John Krakauer’s 1999 book Into the Wild was a publishing phenomenon. It told the true story of Christopher McCandless, who may be the first known case of death by reading. McCandless was privileged, good looking, and intelligent. He graduated from Emory University, and was probably on his way to Harvard Law. But he was also taciturn, misanthropic, and profoundly lacking in common sense. He became enraptured by the books of Jack London, Thoreau, and the whole host of romantics. Inspired by Tolstoy’s renunciation of wealth and a return to nature, he gave away all his money, burned his identification, abandoned his car in the desert, renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, and fell off the face of the Earth. Two years later, his emaciated body was found in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. Krakauer, through some outstanding reportage, reconstructed those two missing years in his book.
Enter Sean Penn, who is nearly as talented a director as he is an actor. He has filmed Into the Wild in a movie of the same name. Penn is an iconoclast, and something of a wanderer himself; you can see why McCandless’ story resonated with him. Some critics have panned the film on the basis that it contains one too many ecstatic shots of nature. David Denby in the New Yorker writes, "[The film is] entirely too visual, to the point of being cheaply lyrical. Penn can’t stop swirling around mountaintops, as if he were selling SUVs."
What a stupid charge, that a film, which like all films consists of photography plus sound, be "too visual"? The claim that the camera swirls incessantly in circles is also materially false; only one shot does that. Penn is certainly selling something, but that’s not an SUV in the center of the screen – it’s a person. Penn has captured America as McCandless saw it – its canyons, its rivers, its wild horses and eagles and blowing snow and endless fileds of yellow corn — from the point of view of a man on foot, determinedly living in the present tense. That America is a place still mysterious and full of wild spaces.
Penn has also done something even more remarkable. He takes a step back from his subject. When McCandless, played with complete conviction by Emile Hirsch, meets fellow travelers along his path, they are struck by the beauty of the young man’s commitment to his quest. It is easy to love folly in a child. But they are also alarmed. They see his naivete. They know the dangers of the world. Katherine Keener, who plays a hippie McCandless meets on the road, pointedly cautions him, "Do your parents know where you are? You look like a well-loved kid to me. Kids are often too hard on their parents."
Into the Wild reveals Penn’s maturity in his unusual attention to the feelings of the parents. When we meet the couple, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, we initially take the son’s side, seeing the mother as an ineffectual alcoholic and the father as stern, unloving, and philandering. Yet whatever their faults, how cruel to disappear from your parent’s life for years without so much as a phone call or a letter to let them know what you are up to, or even to know you are alive. The sister says, in voiceover narration, "My parents, at once in mortal conflict, had moved past anger and grief to a kind of stoic acceptance. Even their faces had changed." It was crucial to cast two actors who could reflect this; Hurt and Gay Harden do so expertly. At some point the worm turns, and we feel more sympathy for the parents than the son.
Into the Wild is, first and foremost, a gorgeous film, including its passionate score by Eddie Vedder and others. In its thrall to wilderness, it is only one step removed from the films of Terence Malik, which slow down enough to find, in beautiful surfaces, the mystery underneath. The film talks of God like it means it. It is long – two hours and twenty minutes – and that’s key to its effect. You need to settle in. Penn’s empathy for and understanding of all his characters makes the film something more. Many of us, when we are young, need to push back on our parents to establish our own identity. Christopher McCandless just pushed harder than most. Though his ending is fitting, you wish the Universe would have given a searching soul a free pass.