My idea of roughing it extends no further than the facilities offered by a Holiday Inn. As far as I’m concerned, indoor plumbing and a bed are the bare requisites for any journey I will ever willingly undertake. My idea of camping extends no further than seeing Harvey Fierstein in a dress singing “Love for Sale.” Most outdoor amusements—kayaking, for a pertinent example as concerns this film—strike me as novel ways to commit suicide. I’ve nothing against any of this, so long as somebody else is doing it.
I bring all this up merely because it’s the sort of disclaimer that needs be kept in mind when reading my comments on Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the highly regarded film version of Jon Krakauer’s highly regarded book about Christopher McCandless, who foreswore civilization upon graduating from college, went off to find himself in nature, and ultimately died in the Alaskan wilderness.
There’s no denying that Penn has made a good movie from the material—occasionally, he’s even made a great one. And it’s equally undeniable that Emile Hirsch (Alpha Dog) gives a remarkable performance as McCandless. The question in my mind is grounded in a basic reservation about the lionization of McCandless. In this regard, compare the film with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), the documentary about self-styled grizzly bear activist Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by the very animals he sought to protect. The two films are similar in theme, but Herzog’s film, while respecting and admiring its subject’s determination, also boasts a sense of irony and criticism about the romanticized folly of that subject. Penn’s film, on the other hand, virtually elevates McCandless to the realm of martyrdom.
While I can appreciate anyone’s search for self-awareness, for the discovery of something greater than the self, I don’t really think it serves anyone’s interest to romanticize what is, at bottom, a suicidal undertaking. Stripped of its literary underpinnings—the Thoreau, Jack London and Tolstoy references—this is really the sad story of a spoiled, upper-middle-class kid who rejected his background and human interaction for a life of solitude, only to learn too late that true happiness is grounded in human interaction. (Since he discovers this in a book by Tolstoy, one wonders if he’d read this particular text sooner whether he might have arrived at a happier conclusion.)
Don’t misunderstand; I’ve the highest regard for McCandless’ search. I have no problem with him jettisoning his parents’ ideas of what his life should be. I even understand why he constantly draws away from other, obviously well intended relationships with people he meets along his journey. His relations with his parents—and their relations with each other—have left him understandably skeptical of all human interaction. (The film errs a bit in this regard, though, since he appears to have nothing but a fine relationship with his sister (Jena Malone), yet rejects her as well.) My problem with the film is the image of McCandless as a hero, when in fact, he seems more victim than hero to me.
However, none of this changes the fact that Into the Wild is frequently terrific filmmaking. Penn knows exactly what he’s doing in nearly every instance (with the exception of an ill-advised bit where McCandless talks to the audience), and demonstrates an admirable fearlessness in his full-tilt approach to the material.
It’s also one of the best-acted movies out there. Not only is Hirsch unbelievably good as McCandless, but there’s scarcely a false note from anyone. Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt are splendid as the parents, even though the film tries too hard to use their evolution into nicer people as evidence of the value of McCandless “sacrificing himself.” (Honestly, it’s a an unintentional by-product of an unintentional sacrifice.) Catherine Keener and newcomer Brian Dierker (a real-life river guide) are outstanding as an aging hippie couple who look on McCandless as a surrogate son. Hal Holbrook is equally fine in his role as a grandfather figure. Even Vince Vaughn manages a subtly nuanced performance as the closest thing to a friend McCandless ever knows. In fact, so much about Into the Wild is so good that I regret my inability to feel comfortable with its overall message. Rated R for language and some nudity.