If a man walks into the woods as a, you know, protest against the rampant materialism and general sickness of society at large, and no one is there to hear him scream his rage, does he make a sound?
Christopher McCandless was a real person, a well-off new graduate of Emory University who skipped out of his privileged life to wander America like a homeless hobo in the early 1990s, and he accidentally made a sound via adventure writer Jon Krakauer’s 1998 book Into the Wild, which retraced McCandless’s travels and excerpted from his diaries to paint a sad, vivid picture of a troubled young man unprepared for the “real” world of career and mortgages and credit card debt but equally unprepared for any kind of alternative life, too. And now screenwriter-director Sean Penn (The Pledge, September 11), after a ten-year effort to get a film version mounted, gives us his take on McCandless. But while Into the Wild, the movie, is intermittently fascinating and occasionally brilliant, Penn ultimately fails to fully capture the pathos and fury of Krakauer’s book, or of McCandless’s misbegotten journey across America and into himself.
If there is a shard of triumph in Penn’s adaptation, it is in its depiction of an America we don’t see in movies, the antithesis of what movies sell us. McCandless (played by the extraordinary Emile Hirsch [Lords of Dogtown, The Emperor’s Club], who’s like Leonardo DiCaprio 10 years ago, all coiled intensity and wrapped-up irony) sought not just a life off the grid but a life almost impossible in today’s world, one removed not just from the tyranny of pop culture but from the tyranny of humanity’s codifying and fencing off of the authenticity of nature. In one scene that’s like a knife in the gut to anyone who laments the total human subjugation of the environment — or at least our belief that we can subjugate it — McCandless seeks permission to canoe down an Arizona river. The “official” response, from a park ranger: there’s a 12-year waiting list for a permit, or, if you don’t want to wait, you can pay a commercial outfit $2,000 to lead you down the whitewaters. Even as a confirmed urbanite with little desire to get tossed around by a raging river, that enrages me. Who are we, as a society, to deny anyone access to the natural world in such a way?
McCandless did something with his similar anger when he embarked on his untethered odyssey across America, working in a grain elevator in South Dakota, hopping trains, even burning what little cash he did earn doing odd jobs in order to remain freer in his quest for “absolute freedom.” At a camp for tramps and road people in the California desert, he encounters folks who’ve found a happy medium between the demands of society and the desire to do one’s own thing — the interlude he spends there with sweet hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener: Capote, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) is the most satisfying part of the film. But this isn’t enough to McCandless, and he refuses to let go his dream of heading into the Alaskan wilderness and living off the land.
Book-smart and real world-naive, “Alexander Supertramp,” as McCandless dubs himself for his travels, is both a king and a fool in his tiny realm of one, a child who’s more a product of the fenced-off human society than he would like to admit. Krakauer’s book acknowledges that there are as many people who see McCandless as a plain and simple idiot with no idea how to survive in the wild, with no desire to learn how to survive in the wild, as there are those who see him as a romantic modern Thoreau, a rebel striking an unconventional blow for a brand of freedom and independence we don’t really even consider today. But Penn sees only the romance of McCandless, and is more in love with the boy’s daring than he seems to recognize his sheer, stubborn ignorance. (And honestly, McCandless’s willful naivete, which embraces the truths of the heart he learns from Tolstoy and Jack London but rejects the truths of the cycles of careless, cruel nature, removes any justification for calling him a man, regardless of his age.) There are moments that suggest Penn will acknowledge the strange and terrible conundrum of McCandless’s adventure — the shots of airplane contrails overhead, even in remote Alaska, that say that the touch of humanity is inescapable; Hirsch’s goofy leer into the camera, a self-conscious reminder that this is a story gleaned from his diaries and letters, one that we can never know how honest it is.
But those hints never come to fruition, never blossom into anything more than brief moments of doubt on McCandless’s part. Krakauer lent a philosophical weight to his book with his observations of his own life as the uncertain and reckless young man he once was. That’s missing here, and without it, Penn’s film is a series of endlessly reflecting mirrors, showing us a single face as it sees itself, and shedding little outside light on how else that face might be seen.