Nearly insufferable in its self-praise and arrogance, “Into the Wild” movie isn’t so much a meditation on life and nature as much as it is the cinematic equivalent of a bad date with a clueless college freshman who feels smarter than everyone else after reading Thoreau’s “Walden” for the first time. It’s unfortunate, because the book “Into the Wild” was a nuanced but immensely-detailed portrait of a complicated, tragic figure. Director Sean Penn’s story, though, forgets the facts and entrenches its hero squarely in the fable, a tall tale of a man who came up far too short.
That man is Christopher McCandless, who decided shortly after graduating from Emory Univerity in 1992, to donate his life’s savings to charity and hit the open road. McCandless’ inspired but ill-fated journey across the U.S. into the Alaskan wild, has been covered in length by writer John Krakeur, first for Outside magazine and then in more detail for his own book. Based on Krakeur’s writings, it’s safe to say that McCandless was intelligent and insightful, had a strong moral code and an adventurous spirit, but might have been a bit out of his depth on this great Alaskan journey.
Critics, though, think of McCandless as a moron for mistakes made on his journey, or even for taking the journey in the first place. Supporters view him as a heroic figure of sorts who had the courage to say goodbye to the 9-to-5 and try something new. The opinions that one can form from Krakeur’s book range wildly, but its generally agreed that had McCandless not done the journey, he would still be alive today.
Sean Penn does try to convey both of the arguments for his film’s McCandless, who is played by Emilie Hirsch. We root for the scruffy vagabond as he questions a national park employee on the lunacy of waiting a year for a permit to paddle down a river, and we feel mystified when he speaks about life and love over a beach campfire with two AARP-aged hippies. We shake our heads as he struggles to hunt for animals, or gets his head nearly-split open by a train conductor.
“Into the Wild” tries to be impartial, but its so clear that Penn is infatuated with his subject that he cheers obnoxiously like an over-zealous dad at a high school basketball game. The soundtrack from Eddie Vedder too suffers from this problem, often gracing us with roaring, outdoorsy ballads like “Hard Sun.” Other songs on the soundtrack, like “Society,” are laughable in their trying-too-hard-to-be-deep-ness, with lyrics like There’s those thinking more or less less is more / But if less is more how you’re keeping score?
There is a strange, probably unintended saving grace of “Into the Wild,” and that’s its secondary characters who meet McCandless along his path. There are the hippies Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) who become surrogate parents of sorts to McCandless, Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), a larger-than-life figure who employs McCandless, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), a kind-spirited, lonely old man who wants to grand-father McCandless, and Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), a guitar-wielding teen who wants to, err, make “harmonies” with McCandless.
Some of these characters think of McCandless’ journey as foolish, but they are all immediately drawn to him and changed by him. They each live some sort of unconventional lifestyle, forgotten creatures that wouldn’t have been discovered hadn’t McCandless not picked up their rock while climbing some mountain nearby. And they’re all committed, nuanced performances.
There are also scenes with McCandless’ actual family but these feel shrill and poorly-executed. Jena Malone plays the sister McCandless who also has a running monologue throughout the movie for whatever reason. Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) play his dad and mom, but too are overbearing that we’re relieved when the characters finally exit the screen.
That sense of relief carries to the film’s closing sequence, an overlong moment that feels both over-directed and under-directed. We feel a sense of fascination lingering for McCandless, somewhat inspired to start our own journeys up and yonder. But that inspiration fades quickly, as impactful and forgettable as the movie itself.