Part coffee-table conversation piece and part head-scratching commencement address, Sean Penn's new film, Into the Wild, is mysterious on its surface and murky at its core. Writer-director Penn adapted the true story of Christopher McCandless, a bright young man from a prosperous family who, shortly after his graduation with honors from Emory University, destroyed most records of his identity, mailed his $24,500 in savings to charity, cut off all contact with his family, and hit America's blue highways in search of himself. For two years, McCandless wandered around the United States before making it out to Alaska, where, after approximately 112 days of living in the great outdoors and perhaps confronting the "presence of a force not bound to be kind to man," he died in 1992.
Penn seems drawn to guys like McCandless; weird, half-robotic introverts who throw their lives away in pursuit of a seemingly senseless quest. Emile Hirsch portrays McCandless as an intelligent kid prone to episodes of quiet desperation about the sick society he's trying to abandon. He's handsome, athletic, and outgoing, but there's also something earnest and frosty about him that shrinks from humanity in general and keeps him moving from place to place. He's an abstraction, a sieve through which experiences flow without leaving a noticeable mark. But the character's reticence creates a narrative problem that Penn can't quite solve. As he winds his way around the country, McCandless' younger sister Carine (Jena Malone) is left to fill in the psychological gaps with florid, disembodied voice-over narration about what he must have been thinking and how much his silences communicated to everyone else.
More silence might have been therapeutic for this film, but Penn stocks nature with earnest troubadors who keep McCandless and the viewer company. When Penn finally brings his camera down from its God-like overhead perch to watch Hirsch struggle with the basics of hunting and gathering in the Alaskan wilderness, he brings a passel of Eddie Vedder's tunes with him. Why not let McCandless struggle in silence? It may be difficult to convey this little cipher's lonely revelations when he has no one to play off of, but it's phony to smear the soundtrack with such acoustic crooning. There's no music in the wild. And McCandless' actions are above all a denial of social convention; Nirvana would have been more appropriate as background noise.
Surprisingly, the strength of Into The Wild is not in its nature scenes but in the fleeting, deeply felt moments of human intimacy that McCandless is privy to, whether he's sharing drinks with Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), sitting with deposed hippie queen Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), or challenging spry old dog Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) to race up a mountain. As Wayne, Vaughn is sensational. His convulsive, manic energies are rarely loosed in a dramatic context, so when he flies off the handle about blood and fire and the rabid human spirit, he's as transcendent as any mountain range or desert vista. It's a pity that the film and its central character begin to value these essential human energies only when they're about to expire.
Into the Wild
Opening Friday, October 19th