Based on Jon Krakauer’s account of the life and death of extreme outdoorsman Chris McCandless, Sean Penn’s film does well by its youthful hero.
With one foot in the 1960s and another in our own cautious time, Into the Wild captures the recklessness, the passion, and also the cruelty of youth. Chris (Emile Hirsch) barrels toward his life’s journey from Atlanta to Alaska, but the rest of the world, older and wiser, seems to be limping back slowly from their travels carrying a suitcase loaded with loss and heartbreak.
Flashing back from Chris’ last stand in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Penn’s film begins in a chaotic, mildly hallucinatory blur. As Chris graduates from Emory University, the world seems to rush at him with teeth bared. On this precipice of adulthood, Chris sees nothing but ruin in the inevitable transformation of his idealism into the complacency of his parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden).
Smart enough for Harvard Law School, Chris instead opts out, driven by equal parts love and rage. His flight to remote Alaska reflects his all-consuming romance with nature. But his odyssey is also a prolonged and often cruel attack on the parents, whose dysfunctional marriage, shallow values, and calculated deceptions fuel Chris’ rage.
Shredding all forms of ID and burning his paper money, Chris sets off for his journey fueled by the moral introspection of Thoreau, London, and Tolstoy. But as the journey continues, Chris’ perception of what “the wild” can offer him shifts.
The bliss of nature often pales in filmic terms to the satisfaction Penn shows of human companionship. On the road, Chris encounters a rich patchwork of Americans: dropouts and hippies, folk artists and vacationing Euros, a lonely retiree and a rowdy, life-embracing farmer played with infectious gusto by a chubby Vince Vaughn.
Carrying much of the film on his shoulders, Emile Hirsch is less an actor than an icon — charismatic and mesmerizing in the manner of young, handsome people who are burdened with embodying our hope for the future. With the blind confidence of youth, Chris lectures the people he meets on the secrets to a happy, satisfied life, until the film’s final moments, when he takes stock of all he has lost, too.
Chris’ travels are blessed. His burning passion is with nature, and it gives the film a state of rapture. He encounters benevolence and kindness, lucky breaks, and straw hats by the side of the road.
In many ways, Into the Wild seems not only aimed at but infused with the values of a college-aged audience, with Chris offered as a messianic hero for those who reject the world’s false values for a higher moral purpose.
But as the film advances, Chris’ infectious enthusiasm and spirit of adventure begin to wane. Something pained and lonely creeps in as Penn flashes forward with increasing frequency to the remote school bus in the Alaskan wilds.
Painful reminders of the film’s theme of loss, many of the people whom Chris encounters pine for missing children. Chris is often embraced — even clung to — as an idealized substitute son. His insistence on continuing his journey amplifies their loss once again.
A film about yearning and wounded human relationships, Into the Wild also offers a kind of ragged redemption for Chris. His epiphany comes too late, but it is all part of his journey; knowledge and life yield enlightenment and sorrow, too.