What is living? What is the purpose to our life? Is it to get a job? To become “successful”? Into the Wild follows the true story of a young man Christopher McCandless and how he abandoned his life to create a new one away from contemporary society and to become one with the wilderness. Adopting a new name and destroying any record of his existence and previous life, Christopher now “Alexander Supertramp” forms new life experiences and relationship across the country.
This film is probably the closet we are going to get for an adaptation of Catcher in the Rye but director Sean Penn has the film stand apart from the famous novel as its own story. Not just because of its biographical relevance but because of Emile Hirsch’s powerful emotional performance as McCandless. If the character doesn’t work in this film, if he comes off as too pretentious or foolish than the film doesn’t work, now he may seem like both of those things at times but he’s a likeable character. You can really relate to his desire to find meaning to his life, to find his true self and you can only admire the bravery that he has in pursuing it.
Hirsch balances the frustration of the character well, he has emotional baggage from his parents, misses his sister and how living without modern technology and apart from society without proper skills. The scene where he kills a moose and then fails to properly preserve the meat is rough because Penn keeps the camera up close showing the exertion and difficulty of trying to skin a moose and how his inability to do so is more cruelty than survival. To make McCandless as a sort of inspiring figure to some characters in the film works as well because Hirsch never plays him as arrogant for wanting to find something greater. When he speaks of what he dreams of, why he wants to go to Alaska it is what he wants for himself, not what he believes other should have. He encourages characters to think like him but not to prove he’s right but to allow for another perspective of living, the latter scenes Hirsch has with Hal Holbrook display that particularly well.
Penn structures the film in a non linear format, following two-story lines of how McCandless gets to Alaska and how McCandless lives in the Alaskan wilderness. This works well works well as you can clearly see the development of the character as the audience goes between the two points of time. As McCandless moves from place to place it will cut back to him building the life he wants in Alaska and putting the skills he developed to use. The character is reflecting on how he got to where he wanted to be and the difficulty of that journey. The film also uses two narrators, Hirsch speaks at times as McCandless but the main voice is Jena Malone as his sister. Words of wondering where he brother has gone, her parents looking for him, how she thinks he’s doing. Intercut with the adventures showing how despite McCandless wanting to become separate from the world there will always be a part of him in the reality he despises and that there are always consequences.
Hirsch is supported by a fantastic cast of characters who he meets along the way as well as figures from his path. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his parents are great in showing how McCandless wanted his life to be nothing like theirs. Hurt’s disapproving stare alone makes you want to go live in the woods out of spite. Vince Vaughn, Zack Galifianakis, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener all characters who shape and enhance Hirsche’s performance and the film. Penn’s direction should also be praised, its artful but accessible to the audience as he guides you though McCandless’s thoughts. He makes the film an experiences that leaves you thinking about your own life and the decisions you made, if our dependence on commodities is really living.
Into The Wild is a stunning film that should be celebrated into its portrayal of being free. People may argue against McCandless’s ideals and use what happens to him in this film as a way to prove that. Penn can allow the audience to come to their own conclusion about how the feel about the character but he and Hirsch doesn’t present McCandless as anything other than his own person, who made his own decisions and because of that life was rewarding.