Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a journey into the desolate heart of the bush

Emile Hirsch.

Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild.

When Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) tells one of his passing friends (Vince Vaughn) that he’s heading to Alaska to live in the wild, he says it with the drunken dreaminess of knowing he’s going to the last best place on the planet.

Vaughn’s right there with him, as an actor, digging it. “What are you doing, now that we’re there in the wild, what are we doing?”

“Just living, man.”

McCandless did make it to Alaska, but he died there, alone in an abandoned bus, of starvation. There were contradicting theories of what led to his death: hubris, stupidity, bad timing, a fatal mistake while foraging to stay alive. If you read Jon Kraukauer’s best-selling book, Into the Wild, you’ll get a full sense of a blurred picture.

The angel-fool reaction to McCandless appears to have followed into the responses to Sean Penn’s newly released film adaptation of the book. In these Northwest parts, you’ve got the lovers (a rare “A” from Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic William Arnold) and the haters: “a dewy-eyed paean to a conflicted young man whom Penn would rather canonize than investigate” (Brendan Kiley, The Stranger).

The heart of the argument lies in another part of the Vince Vaughn scene when he asks McCandless, “Alaska Alaska? Or city Alaska?” City Alaska is presumably where the electricity and people are. Kind of Seattle the way Easterners once thought of the place. Alaska Alaska implies the wild heart of the bush. That’s where fantasies of living off the land meet actual dirt, and where the creatures a filmmaker might capture in a tranquilized state live there for real, and quite ready to eat you when they’re awake.

The candied way in which Penn catches certain moments of McCandless’s transformation – as he goes from being a serious young man to a renamed “Alexander Supertramp,” destroyer of money, family, and history – undercuts some of the achievement of Into the Wild. It works better when Chris gets to Alaska, where the truth grows into the character’s eyes over many days. We see an emotion we all recognize, and it’s fear. There comes a time, the film suggests, when Chris is ready to grow up and go home. By the ending, the sugar’s all gone.

The film is a take on the classic American road movie mixed with the foreshadowing of tragedy. Not exactly a Hollywood tradition, where death does not come easily along with popcorn flavoring. But Sean Penn does not have a light-hearted hand at filmmaking. He thinks seriously about serious matters and has the political stages on which to act them out. His films aren’t about just the heart of darkness but the eyes, teeth, and (in the case of Benecio del Toro in The Pledge) the awful matted hair, too.

If the notion of a “Sean Penn film” wasn’t going to be my inspiration to run across town, that other credit, music by Eddie Vedder, was almost too much. I live in Seattle: Do I need to get that depressed? (The music turned out to be tone-perfect, but overused.)

But there’s oyster light in this darkness. Penn does something quite remarkable with the structure of Into the Wild, beginning his narrative in a muted, stiff state (represented in the too-tightly-wound performances of William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Chris’s parents). Then he loosens up on the cross-country trek. With each titled chapter, the film becomes lighter, fonder, more exhilarating and majestic, soulful, wistful, caught in its own thoughts and whispers.

It’s also gorgeous. Penn’s eye feels as though it’s everywhere. Shooting some of the scenes, and working with cinematographer Eric Gautier, Penn ranges across a series of intense, brief vignettes with a gentle and coaxing way with each of his actors.

Chris may be an idealized character in the script (it doesn’t include his encounters with those who judged him a crackpot). But it does make you see why a couple of road hippies (a transcendent Catherine Keener, working with a perfectly cast first-timer, Brian Dierker), fall for the boy, just as an old man he meets (Hal Holbrook) ultimately wants to adopt him.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Holbrook’s part as an isolated man was originally intended for Marlon Brando. It’s impossible to know, but Holbrook’s capacity to break into the very center of his character with his love and concern for this man-child he’s only just met is devastating, and it opens the entire film to heartbreak.

Finally, Chris in the wild is no longer alone. There with him in the final moments are the people who watch and wait and don’t know what’s happening; who loved and knew him but only in pieces; who are still listening for him but realizing he’s never coming back. The power of the film is in feeling like one of them.

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