Into the Wild (2007)
The story of Christopher McCandless was made known to the American public when author Jon Krakauer wrote a book about the young wanderer in 1996. A fresh college graduate from a respected middle class family, McCandless suddenly donated all his life savings to charity and left his family directly after graduation in order to travel across the country with no commodities or money. His ultimate goal was to live off the land in the Alaskan wilderness – completely separated from a society that he felt was pestered by materialism and falseness.
Into the Wild tells a story of a unique human being. Not primarily because of his idealism and fearlessness (which has been and will become an inspiration for many, arguably including director Sean Penn), but rather because of the duality of most any of his actions and choices. The strength of Penn's film is that it can be seen in several lights. On an explicit level, the film is a social criticism, with McCandless being the voice himself, and Penn following up the young idealist's sentiment with montages of the lesser successful aspects of capitalism. As such, Into the Wild is first and foremost a strong and enterprising character portrait – propelled forward by an industrious Emile Hirsch showing the world that he may be the next Leonardo DiCaprio. Still, Into the Wild is equally interesting on an implicit level – a level Penn doesn't front, but doesn't conceal either. This will lead to questions like whether it is the selfishness and coldness of society that has created a person like Chris, or if it is the indifference and arrogance he conveys which has helped form the society we have. That is, does Chris' arguably egoistic drive and lust for personal achievement really diverge in principle from that of his father?
The weakness of Into the Wild involves Penn's fascination with the poetic aspect of McCandless' persona and actions. Penn always has been gifted when it comes to balancing, and despite some close calls, he's able to maintain a fine equilibrium throughout Into the Wild as well. Even if he goes to some lengths in romanticising McCandless, he does so more for the gregarious man of the early travels than he does it for the man that went in over his head towards the end of his escapades.
The interpersonal drama in Into the Wild includes moments of wonderful poignancy. The most noteworthy involves Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch just before the latter travels to Alaska. There is something abruptly terminal about this scene that is painfully recognizable to us all. There are also strong scenes with William Hurt (towards the end), Catherine Keener and the talented Kristen Stewart. But it is Hirsch's performance that stands out. He packs quite a lot into the role of McCandless, and he embodies the difficult closing part remarkably. Into the Wild is an important and beautiful film – not because it is flawless, which it isn't, but because of the vast range of issues it discusses.