Sean Penn doesn’t direct often, but if Into the Wild is any indication of the man’s talent, he ought to sit in the director’s chair more often. He directs very differently than he acts. His performances are often overwrought and emotionally charged, sometimes going way over the top of where they ought to be. I say this not to claim Penn doesn’t have merit as an actor, just that his acting tendencies don’t creep into his direction whatsoever, and Into the Wild is an engrossing, beautiful film for that very reason.
Penn adapted the screenplay from Jon Krakauer’s true-life book about Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch,) a college grad fed up with the conventions of society. He abandons his material possessions, burns whatever cash is in his pocket, and heads out onto a life on the road, leaving behind his parents’ fractured relationship and an adoring younger sister without a shred of communication. Ultimately, McCandless (who begins calling himself Alexander Supertramp) has the goal of trekking across the Alaskan wilderness, living off the land and experiencing complete freedom from society.
Penn’s direction is instantly reminiscent of Terrence Malick (whose The Thin Red Line Penn starred in.) Malick’s films have always been more concerned with the way the film is shot and looks than the way the story is told. Penn shoots and structures his film much the same way – its deeply lyrical. But Penn does a better job than Malick at maintaining a consistent rhythm and not completely losing sight of the substance for the form. Into the Wild is comparable in length to Malick’s recent work (slightly shorter than The Thin Red Line but longer than The New World) but it doesn’t lose it focus over the course of the film like the Malick films tend to do. Penn tells a riveting tale, despite the unconventional two-track time element – one track focuses on the present, with McCandless in Alaska, while the other tells his backstory. Despite the back-and-forth structure, the film is completely involving.
A big reason why it doesn’t lose interest is the way Penn splits McCandless’s backstory into chapters. Each vignette reveals more about McCandless as he encounters a different person or set of people each time. Each chapter tells a stand-alone tale, as well as contributing to the overarching story.
The supporting performances in these sections are outstanding, from Catherine Keener’s hippie road warrior to Vince Vaughn’s law-breaking farmer to Hal Holbrook’s weary retiree. Holbrook’s Oscar nomination seemed like one of those random, somewhat undeserved supporting nominations until I actually saw his performance. It’s a small role, but the pathos he infuses into his character is highly impressive. His nomination was well deserved.
Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt don’t do much except argue and become highly emotional, which is exactly the kind of part Harden likes to play. Jena Malone is fantastic as McCandless’s younger sister, and her narration is weaved throughout the film to demonstrate the pain she feels at her brother simply leaving and never contacting her.
Much has been made of the fact that McCandless is too selfish to identify with, but that is simply not the case. Certainly his character demonstrates little concern for anyone but himself. Is he selfish? Yes, but he’s also driven, and driven people often forget to consider others. This makes his character imperfect, but not impossible to identify with.
Ultimately, Into the Wild isn’t a character study anyway. Penn never lets the audience get too close or know too much about these characters. Even though McCandless is the centerpiece, we never really get to know him. His motivations for making the kind of journey he does are not clear. This is a film about his experience, about the journey, about the open road. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call the film poetic and it’s one of the most visually artistic releases of 2007 (trailing only behind The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.) Penn truly has created a masterpiece.
Into the Wild is available as a barebones single-disc version and a two-disc collector’s edition.