Directed by: Sean Penn
Premise: The true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a college graduate who gave away his possessions to travel across North America, eventually ending up in Alaska.
What Works: Some films are able to expose observations about our culture by taking us on a journey through the landscape the way Forrest Gump did, using an episodic structure in which the protagonist meets fellow travelers on a journey. The result is usually a story that paints with broad strokes in order to cover its entire canvas. Other films make commentary through a close focus on a single character like There Will Be Blood and use a limited scope to pick apart its subject. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild combines these approaches and the result is a picture that is able to penetrate deeply into the life of Christopher McCandless, played wonderfully by Emile Hirsch, while also sketching the culture he grew up in and eventually rejected, portraying the link between them. This is an intelligent film, capturing the reason behind McCandless’ journey and treating his rejection of social expectations with equal parts respect and criticism. The picture does not ridicule him but it does show how erratic and sometimes dangerous his choices became due to McCandless’ naiveté and misanthropic tendencies, and how those flaws contributed to his journey as much as his enthusiasm and education. This film also captures the sheer adventure of the journey and even an agoraphobic would be awed by McCandless’ travels through the gorgeous landscape. While the protagonist meets many different characters in his travels, Into the Wild has the distinction of filling its story with many fully realized characters with real histories and personalities. In the process, the film allows the supporting characters lives of their own and conveys ideas that further McCandless’ own convictions and builds toward the isolated and heartbreaking finale. Into the Wild is a learned film, one that uses the literary sources who influenced McCandless, such as Jack London, Mark Twain, and Henry David Thoreau, to give his unconventional life some credibility and embed the story within an American tradition of explorers and independent thinkers. Into the Wild translates this into the cinematic form successfully, using sound, cinematography, and editing to embed the theory into the practice.
What Doesn’t: Some viewers might find Into the Wild too slow moving or they may have difficulty understanding or appreciating McCandless’ point of view. Also, the one area where the film could do more is in the family dynamic and McCandless’ relationship to his father.
Bottom Line: Into the Wild presents viewers with a portrait of someone who found love for his fellow man by leaving society. What Penn’s film does so incredibly well is to use the life of Christopher McCandless to present us with the most sobering, intelligent, critical, and insightful view of our own culture on film this year.
Episode: #174 (Jaunary 13, 2008)