The more I think about Into the Wild, the less I like it. To be sure, I was incredibly moved by this story, despite what I see as continuous poor stylistic choices on the part of writer/director Sean Penn. (Penn got script help from poet Sharon Olds.) I am a fan of non-fiction journalist Jon Krakauer, from whose book of the same name this movie is adapted. I have the feeling I would’ve enjoyed reading the book better.
Which is not to say the movie doesn’t get certain things incredibly right. The performances of all the supporting players are uniformly excellent, and some, like Hal Holbrook are as truthful as any of Sean Penn’s own nominated turns. The story is definitely brought to life by filming in the actual locations that were waystations the tragic journey of Chris McCandless.
After graduating from Emory College, McCandless (Emile Hirsh) dropped off the grid and took the name and persona ‘Alexander Supertramp’, setting forth with only shoe leather to see the United States, his goal to eventually find solitude in Alaska. Episodes from his months of survivalist living in the great white north are intercut with episodes from his road journey and elegiacally narrated by his sister (Jena Malone).
Into the Wild is more a journey of inner discovery than a travelogue. Continue reading about Into the Wild (spoilers ahead)…At 23, McCandless is incredibly sure of his own back-to-nature philosophy. But by the end of the movie, he will see his philosophy completely inverted. His spiritual cockiness is a form of hubris, and this tragic flaw allows for a powerfully tragic conclusion.
The problem is, several of Penn’s stylistic choices come close to diffusing the grand tragedy. I have no problem with lyricism of the Malick vein, but Penn is no Malick. From the very beginning, with the odd font choices in the opening titles and the rather inelegant editing of a montage of wilderness, we are clearly in the hands of a director who lacks the confidence of his protagonist.
The odd cuts, abrupt textual interludes and at least two Brechtian moments where Emile Hirsch breaks character and looks directly at the camera make Into the Wild play like Godard-but-with-plot. The compositions occasionally attain an accidental beauty, but I was surprised by how often amazing landscapes came across quite pedestrian; and I was baffled by the continually changing film stocks and color timings. The blue greasepaint on Emile’s face at the end was a distraction from what was actually coming across via acting and emaciation: I get he’s sick without you making him look like a pale member of the Blue Man Group.
Even with all this hamfisting, Into the Wild moved me. I experienced McCandless’ revelation that joy in life comes not from solitude but human relationships. And I wept at how his wild paradise became a prison, and the guilt his family must’ve felt upon hearing of his death. (William Hurt’s sit-in in the road was a clam note in the final fugue.) The photo of the real McCandless said it better than Eddie Vedder’s warbling or Penn’s most inspired coaching: happiness is other people.
Sean Penn interview