Sean Penn’s 2007 Into the Wild tells the quite astonishing true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a 23-year-old guy who, after graduating from college, decides to fuck off at a moment’s notice. He’s introduced to us as free-spirited soul who establishes himself outside of the norm, as exhibited in his fanaticism of Tolstoy, his rejection of his graduation present – who needs a nice new car when his old Datsun runs just fine? – and the fact that he donates his entire $24,000 college fund to Oxfam.
His approach to anti-materialism means he is to Tyler Durden what Martin Luther King was to Malcom X, but he ain’t no saint; his letter containing the $24k cheque is accompanied by a note detailing exactly what the money was originally meant for, or rather, how amazingly nice he was being. He repeats similar acts of pseudo-generosity throughout his journey, and his philanthropy tends to feel incredibly forced. He’s adopted his attitude towards life through an attempt to make amends for his parents’ gruelling and often violent marriage, although his kindness are more conscious than he wants people to believe.
While his selfishness is most strikingly revealed in a heartbreaking scene towards the end, it’s quite apparent the whole way through the movie. One of the film’s best aspects is the fact that, while Chris is off cheerfully gallivanting, his sister Carine (Jena Malone) narrates their tragic past, as well as the impact Chris’ disappearance is having on the family. His parents may be too eager to shower him with money, yet they still just want the best for the arrogant little prick, and although his shedding of materialism does initially seem admirable, the crux of the film’s emotional weight lies in the exploration of choosing your own happiness over someone else’s.
Chris chooses his own, of course, which involves travelling from Virginia to Alaska via Arizona, California, South Dakota and Mexico. He hitchhikes whenever he can, and meets a lot of folks along the way, some inspirational to Chris, some who Chris inspires. Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian H. Dierker), for instance, are experiencing marital difficulties until they encounter our rambling protagonist, whose brief input into their lives sets in motion a chain-reaction that gradually rekindles their love for one another. The aging, long-widowed Ron Franz (an outstanding Hal Holbrook) plays a father figure in Chris’ life, but what’s interesting about this is how realistic their father-son relationship turns out to be: knowing his days are numbered, Ron wishes to have a real bond with Chris, yet he is reciprocated by arrogance and solipsism, as is tragically the case with many families, surrogate or otherwise.
Indeed, Chris’ true love (apart from himself) is the landscape of virgin American territory, hence his desire to experience the wilderness of Alaska, which is where he ends up spending the majority of his travels. Essentially this is an excuse for director Sean Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier to capture some absolutely gorgeous footage of rural scenery, but you won’t hear me complaining. Wild has a very Hal Ashby feel to it, and in an era where technology has western culture in a chokehold, the visuals in this movie are nothing short of refreshing.
Similarly, Chris’ more resourceful survival skills are shot with a hint of wonder, and Penn uses lots of close-ups in the film’s earlier moments to drag the viewer out of their living room where food can be sought from the fridge to the frozen woodlands where food must be shot. Chris shows expertise in this as long as he’s focusing on small-fry, yet his opportunism takes its toll when he kills a moose that becomes covered in flies and maggots despite his best attempts at preserving it.
This is also the point where his journey begins its inevitable downward turn; the idealism of living life surrounded by natural wonder gets replaced by the claustrophobia engendered once nature rears its ugly head, manifested in shots of the huge beast’s gored body as Chris rips it apart into manageable chunks. It’s the scene where all the film’s various explorations of love are tied in together, and his relationship with nature indeed mirrors his parents’ relationship with each other: picturesque at the off, harsh and unpleasant upon progression. This is further enhanced by the titles of the film’s chapters – ‘My Birth,’ ‘Adolescence,’ ‘Manhood,’ ‘Family,’ and ‘Getting of Wisdom’ – which makes a grand and predominantly accurate statement by aligning the key moments of Chris’ life with the narrative of human maturity, as well as highlighting time’s destruction of ideals; Chris’ early enthusiasm eventually gives way to complacency, which is what ends up costing him most dearly.
Into the Wild was written and directed by Sean Penn (based on the novel of the same name by Jon Krakauer) and stars Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt and Jena Malone. It lasts for 148 minutes and is distributed in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by Paramount Home Entertainment. Originally released in 2007.