Despite a book and now a movie about him, Christopher McCandless will always remain something of an enigma -- the guy who, fresh out of college, gave away all his savings, tore up his credit cards and set out to discover America and/or himself, only to die of starvation, two years later, in the Alaskan wilderness. What must he have been thinking?
Jon Krakauer ventured a few guesses in his 1996 bestseller Into the Wild, which drew in part on the journal entries that McCandless scribbled down while his body was wasting away. And Sean Penn has come up with his own take in his cinematic version of Krakauer's account, expanding the search for clues and fleshing out the ones Krakauer came up with. The book left it up to the reader to decide whether McCandless was a holy innocent or a holy fool. The movie knows a saint when it sees one.
But saints can be complex, ornery people; and Penn, who also wrote the screenplay, never shies away from the egomaniacal idealism that must have made McCandless a bit of a pill to be around. As played by Emile Hirsch, Penn's McCandless is the spiritual equivalent of a spoiled brat. He simply can't compromise his beliefs, which might have made him a bit of a pill for us to be around if the movie weren't such a glorious piece of filmmaking, by far the best thing Penn's ever done. In his previous films (most recently, The Pledge), he had a tendency to go for situations roiling with emotion, but he never found the filmic technique to match that emotion. These were actors' showcases, at best. But Into the Wild is very much a movie-movie, the camera swirling over the western half of the United States like an eagle in flight.
And we swirl with it, pulled along on McCandless' vision quest. He'd always suffered from wanderlust, lighting out for the territory in his beat-up Datsun while still in high school. But Penn zooms in on a family life that would have turned any kid into Huckleberry Finn - a controlling father (William Hurt), a resentful mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and all the materialistic excess money can buy. It's possible that Penn leans too heavily on the parents, turning them into the villains of the piece when the piece doesn't necessarily require a villain.
For whatever reasons, McCandless left his family behind, trekking across the Southwest, the Northwest and the Northern Plains, and he appears to have been running both toward and away from something. Like so many before him, he wanted to live pure and free, as close to nature as humanly possible.
Along the way, he met a number of people who, in the movie, take on a kind of allegorical significance - way-stations of the cross, preparing McCandless for his rendezvous with destiny. Catherine Keener plays an aging hippie chick who takes him in and mothers him. Vince Vaughn hires him to run a thresher in the wheat fields of North Dakota, treating him like a brother. And Hal Holbrook, as a man who's been mourning his wife and son for 50 years, imparts some fatherly advice.
In each case, McCandless gives as good as he gets, touching lives like a wandering messiah. And it all might be a bit much if Hirsch weren't so skillful at playing this lost-and-found soul. His McCandless is, at heart, a kid -- a boy looking for the right way to be a man. Yes, his head was crammed with spiritual longings, but he was also off on a great adventure.
And somehow that led to Alaska, Jack London country. Penn re-creates the abandoned bus that McCandless holed up in for 113 days, the original now a tourist shrine for those who subscribe to Outside magazine. And it's not that hard to see what would draw a Thoreau enthusiast to that neck of the woods -- the snow-capped mountains, the glistening streams, the moose and elk, even the wolves and bears. But McCandless, for all his fervor, was a bit of a tenderfoot, and you almost wish someone had handed him a copy of Outward Bound for Dummies.
Still, Penn basically takes him at his word, and the Alaskan sequences, which are deftly interwoven with the previous two years of McCandless' wanderings, are both idyllic and harrowing. The guy didn't seem to have any real sense of the danger he was in until it was too late.
Perhaps he was blinded by the scenery. I know I was. At Penn's urging, cinematographer Eric Gautier has come up with a series of painterly landscapes that rival those by Caspar David Friedrich and Frederic Edwin Church in sheer sublimity. And the movie can't help but remind us of Days of Heaven, where Terrence Malick found God in each individual blade of grass.
Some might say that Penn got carried away with the chopper-cams, soaring like a bird when he should have brought McCandless back down to earth. But what was McCandless if not a bird in flight, idly drifting away from all his worldly concerns? Did he run away from home, or did he simply hear the call of the wild? Perhaps both, but if he'd somehow survived his self-imposed exile, he sure would have had a story to tell. Instead, Penn has told it for him, magnificently.