Here is a movie that, for all intents and purposes, is a good film. It is a travelogue that shows us some of the most picturesque landscape that America has to offer. However, despite all that it offers visually, it's compromised in the romanticized view of its central character by writer/director Sean Penn. As I sat in the theater, I could not help but be annoyed by the way it went about presenting the journey.
Into the Wild chronicles the journey taken by Christopher McCandless. He was a young man who, upon graduating from Emory College in 1990, rebelled against his family and what he felt was a capitalist, materialistic society. He chose to remove himself from society, lest he be caught up in it and have his life spoiled by it. To that end, he donates his life savings to charity, drives his car as far west as it will go, burns his money and identification, and heads off into the wilderness.
Along the way, with Alaska as his goal, there is a succession of individuals who float in and out of his life, each leaving an indelible mark on the young man. Among them are a couple of hippies living life out of an RV (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker), a wheat farmer (Vince Vaughn), a couple of Danish vacationers, a teenage singer (Kristen Stewart), and a kindly old man (Hal Holbrook).
The most notable is Hal Holbrook's Ron Franz, who stands out the most. The elderly war vet sees something in the young man. During the short time they spend together he comes to look on McCandless as the son he never had. It is the most emotionally touching and involving sequence of the film. Holbrook truly left a mark on the journey.
To its credit, the film is very well made. It takes its time to get from point A to point B. It has a nice, meandering pace that allows us to linger on some of the beauty that the country has to offer. It is different than your standard Hollywood fare which is always about how fast we can get to the next plot point or set piece. To help drive that home, the cinematography by Eric Gautier is quite striking, providing yet another example of how strong 2007 was in the realm of cinematography.
The performances are also quite good. Emile Hirsch does a good job of portraying the idealistic young man. I do not, exactly, buy him as the saintly, driven person portrayed here. I get the feeling that Penn has, at least slightly, idealized him and what he believes he stood for. However, that is to take nothing away from what Hirsch was able to do. As for the supporting roles, I already mentioned Hal Holbrook's impact, but he is not the only one to have a moment of clarity. Brian Dierker as the hippie Rainey has considerable presence as one of McCandless' benefactors. Even Vince Vaughn has a memorable turn as a happy-go-lucky man who takes a liking to the traveler.
Eddie Vedder's collaborations with Kaki King and Michael Brook provide some good music, athough, it is not the same Vedder I remember from the early Pearl Jam days. The music is quite fitting to the tone and pace of the film.
For all the good that Into the Wild has to offer, I am sure you are wondering why I don't like it. Well, it has to do with Christopher McCandless himself. I mean no disrespect for the dead. I am sorry about what happened to him, but the thing of it is that it did not have to happen. I get the feeling that his desire to flee materialistic society and rebel against his family were just a smokescreen covering up some mental problems. There are other ways to rebel rather than heading off, unprepared (no matter how many books he had, he was not prepared for what was to come), into the wilds of the north.
I have to believe that there was a better way for him to deal with his society issues, with his father problems, and whatever else he felt, or thinks he felt, about society. Instead, he chose a rather selfish route that eventually led to his death and irreparable pain for his family. I liken him to Timothy Treadwell, another man who was not prepared for what he was getting himself into, likely suffered from mental problems, and eventually paid for his actions with his life.
Bottom line. It is a nicely crafted film, however it seeks to make a statement about society that rings hollow and canonizes a young man who went about his revolution the wrong way. Do I have the answer? No. He would probably see me as part of the "problem." Be that as it may, he went off into the wild, ill prepared to handle what was there and eventually paid the ultimate price.