There were so many war films at the Toronto Film Festival that all I could think of was Virginia Mayo’s line in King Richard and the Crusaders: “Oh, fight, fight, fight! That’s all you ever think of, Dickie Plantagenet!” After witnessing bloody battles in Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, Elizabethan England, Northern Ireland, Vietnam and the ghettos of New York and L.A., one felt grateful for the wicked humor of George Clooney. Plugging Michael Clayton, an incomprehensible new flick about corrupt lawyers, he dodged the usual idiotic questions about girlfriends, then responded to one about the similarity between himself and his character with: “Well, we’re both the same height.”
At last year’s circus, Sean Penn was so bored and hostile that he ignored the city’s no-smoking ordinance and chain-puffed his way through his own press conference, costing the Sutton Place Hotel about $600 in fines. This year he was back at the same hotel with a wonderful film called Into the Wild that he wrote, directed and co-produced, and for which he even served as cinematographer during much of the arduous shooting schedule. In a euphoric mood, he refrained from attacking the Bush administration, avoided the subject of politics and only blasted the photographers twice for distracting him with their cameras. Instead of lighting up, he chewed on a glass of ice cubes and left the dubious award for Most Unpopular Star to Tommy Lee Jones, who scowled and cursed the press so much that one boldface headline crowned him “Mr. Crankypants.” Mr. Penn had good reason to be cordial, and so did the press. After 34 war films in 10 days, it was a pleasure to see Into the Wild, which arrives commercially this week at a crowded cinema near you.
Based on the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer, it’s the true story of 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (magnetically played by Emile Hirsch, the gifted and appealing young actor from The Emperor’s Club), an affluent, brilliant and rebellious young iconoclast who, after graduating from college in 1990, gave all of his possessions to charity, burned his money, renamed himself Alex Supertramp and headed into the wilderness seeking freedom—physical, mental and spiritual—from the greed, hate, crime, violence, injustice and materialism of mainstream society. Finding solace and companionship in books by Thoreau, Jack London and other naturalists, he turned his back on convention, and his search for knowledge and wisdom became a personal declaration of independence that took him as far from civilization as he could travel—hiking from the Grain Belt to the sea, paddling his way in a kayak down the rapids of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon without a government permit, hopping a freight train across the border into Mexico, and arriving at last in the snowy wastes of Alaska, where peace reigns and only man is vile. Without electricity, plumbing, cellphones, heat or food, he battled the elements, learned how to hunt, fish and live on roots and berries, and in 1992, four months after reaching his destination, he died from starvation, frostbite and food poisoning in an abandoned bus from the Kansas City Transit System. After his remains were discovered by trappers a few weeks later, he became a legend among hippies, and the rusted bus where his body was found is now an Alaskan tourist attraction.
It’s a sad story that runs two and a half hours, and you already know going in that the protagonist is going to die in the end, so it is positively amazing that Into the Wild is so consistently fresh, riveting and profoundly moving. Its seismic impact must be credited to Mr. Penn’s passion for and enormous dedication to his material. He’s always been a first-rate actor, but he’s also become a director with vision and purpose; I’ve been a fan ever since his devastating and underappreciated Jack Nicholson film The Pledge. He saw something of his own restless nature in the story of Chris McCandless, and this film is sort of a tribute to idealism, from one nonconformist to another. He has chronicled the young man’s journey religiously, shooting in the actual locations and filling the screen with the array of fascinating characters McCandless met along the way and wrote about in his journals. Hal Holbrook as a surrogate father, Catherine Keener as an aging flower child in a desert commune and Vince Vaughn as a farmer who produces drugs are memorable, and Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt are perfect as the bewildered McCandless parents. Photographing whatever catches his fancy—a flight of seabirds, the sunset over a combine harvester in a field of wheat, the dim lights of Skid Row—and capturing every experience with a dangerous immediacy and a breathtaking beauty, Mr. Penn allows us to accompany McCandless on his trip into the wild every step of the way, as close to him as his backpack.
Here’s something else: As much as I admire Mr. Penn’s consuming drive to get this story on the screen, I also salute him for resisting the temptation to nominate McCandless for sainthood. God knows he was brave, but a hero? In addition to his fearlessness, he was also something of a selfish brat, never once making an effort to contact caring parents back home, driven to the lip of madness with worry, not knowing if he was dead or alive. In my opinion, he was thoughtless, arrogant, cruel in his ignorance of the needs and feelings of others and a train wreck waiting to happen. I applaud his spiritual quest, but heading into the wild without maps, compasses or matches is more than a little bit loopy. In the end, McCandless learns life’s most valuable lesson—that real happiness and personal fulfillment come not in alienation from the society you distrust, but through relationships with others. Tragically, McCandless was never able to share what he learned, but his story does teach us something vital about the human condition. He was a breed apart from what you would call average; his life is still haunting, and so is this film.