I felt conflicted about reviewing Into the Wild, Sean Penn's new film chronicling the life and death of Christopher McCandless. Jon Krakauer's best-selling book of the same name -- published to wide acclaim in 1996 -- told of how McCandless took a journey across America seeking some deeply-held goal that ended with his death, alone, in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. And the reason for my conflicted feeling was simple: For all of my carefully calculated professional cynicism, I don't like speaking ill of the dead. But then I realized that speaking ill of Into the Wild is very different from speaking ill of Christopher McCandless. A human death is a tragedy; a movie about death is a movie.
We meet McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, as he's graduating from university. He's supposed to be coming home and figuring out what's next; instead, he sells the majority of his things, donates his life savings/college fund to Oxfam America, burns his social security card, and sets out across America -- re-naming himself Alexander Supertramp. We're supposed to see his decisions and actions as the birth of a free-spirited soul, but we're also seeing classic signs of suicidal ideation. From the outset, Chris doesn't come across as unfettered -- just unmedicated.
We follow McCandless -- meeting fellow free-spirits Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) in his travels, working the fields in the heartland for the hearty and funny Wayne (Vince Vaughn), constantly working towards getting to his dream destination of Alaska, where he wants to live off the land. Even with voice-over drawn from real-life letters and documents, though, we don't get a real sense of McCandless -- he's supposed to be this pure, uncompromising seeker-of-truth; he more often comes across on-screen as a smug, unlikable narcissist, exactly the sort of anti-capitalist you can only become if you spring from an immensely privileged background.
Into the Wild opens with a quote from Byron which articulates the poet's great love of the wild, and how he " ... loved not man the less/but nature more." McCandless may have loved nature, but the movie shows us a man in love with himself -- carving his manifesto into plywood and reading it aloud, proud of his lack of connection, perpetually eager to move on. He's woefully unprepared for his journey, and Penn shows us some of that -- a hunting expedition gone wrong, for example, or the error in botany that led to his death -- but the film's mood feels wholly behind Chris's decision up until the end.
Hirsch is a fairly talented actor, but all he's asked to deliver here is sensitive-Jesus-boy poses; the scenes of Hirsch, flannel-clad, arms outspread, atop magnificent vistas are cliché enough; layer a score heavy with Eddie Vedder's portentous croak over that moment and it's overkill. Keener and Dierker are superb -- Keener gets the most honest moment in the film, as Alexander is dismissing his petite-bourgeois parents and she calls him on it: "You look like a loved kid; be fair." Dierker's a newcomer to acting -- but he holds his own on-screen, conveying Rainey's humble, hard-won sense of who he is. Vaughn's Wayne is vital and human and raw; like Rainey, a little more of his character's sense and sensibility would have gone a long way to improve the film.
As a writer, Penn's stokes the flames of the movie's self-importance into an inferno. Some of the film's voice-over is drawn from the journals and writings of Chris's younger sister Carine. I have no way of knowing if the real Carine McCandless wrote of " ... loss so irrevocable that the mind balks at it's measure," as her fictional iteration of herself does in Penn's film, but what may have been real on some journal page or in some heartfelt letter doesn't come across that way on-screen; it feels flat and wordy and fake. There are other clumsy choices as well -- when Chris is told there's a multi-year wait to get a permit to kayak in the wonder and splendor of a national park, George H. W. Bush is droning on the television in the background of the Ranger station. Okay, we get it: Modern life is rubbish.
That's not to say there aren't subtle or complex moments in Into the Wild -- when a troop of sports fans invade the restaurant where Chris's family are holding his graduation celebration dinner, 'non-conformist' Chris and his frosty, patrician father (William Hurt) both gaze on them with disdain -- but they're few and far between. And it's hard to read the tone of other moments: When Chris exhorts the older Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), one of the many friends he makes on his journey, to follow him up a mountain for the view, is that the life-affirming spirit of a plucky feral nature boy, or the self-centered ways of an insensitive jerk wheedling an octogenarian into taking on rough, life-endangering terrain?
William Carlos Williams wrote "The pure products of America go crazy." Even if you think that's true in a romantic or rebellious way -- two modes of thought which Penn's proven himself capable of -- it doesn't mean that anything crazy is automatically a pure product of America. Into the Wild is beautifully shot (even if some of McCandless's adventures have the look and feel of nothing less than outtakes from the most self-important Mountain Dew commercial ever made), and it's certainly well-intentioned. Even so, as the credits roll at the close of Into the Wild, you don't feel like you've celebrated a life spent on the road less traveled; you feel like you've just witnessed a slow-motion suicide.