Does everyone have that moment when the concrete, impossibly straight lines of our rigid lives seem too much to bear? When we come to the realization that we've lost sight of happiness, of truth and beauty in simplest purity? And then there's that yearning, the urge to break away with form, with the convention of our existence and just go away, pick up a rucksack, a tattered old paperback and just move.
Although I've known that feeling, it couldn't have been further from my mind when I first came upon the story of Chris McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, in John Krakauer's incredible piece of journalism. I was still in a euphoric blur that came with the birth of my son at the end of May 2007, it was the dog days of Summer, and I read Into the Wild sitting outside on the back porch, my ass in one folding chair and my feet propped up on another with Jack, three months old, sleeping in a tiny cradle covered with mosquito netting by my side. Chris' story - a bright, charismatic young man who donates his savings to charity and leaves home without a word, traveling the country dealing with life on unbridled terms until he makes his way to Alaska where he vanishes for good - forced its way in my head with the first page and refused to budge. And although I had no inclination to pack it up and just move, its impact on life hasn't subsided. It was one of those reading experiences where the time, place, and frame of mind mattered just as much as the words on the page.
It must have mattered to Sean Penn too, because he pours a lot of care into his adaptation, using the book and interviews with McCandless's family and people he met on his travels to as a springboard to imagine the life McCandless might have led. INTO THE WILD is ambitious, and probably Penn's work as a director. He has a way with visuals, and in its best moments INTO THE WILD has a grace and dignity in its images, actor and environment fusing in a raw and heartfelt marriage. His handling of actors is also fantastic - Emile Hirsch is brilliant as Chris/Alex, and the supporting cast, particularly Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook, all feel not just realistic but real - these are people you know or have known at some point in your lives. When it all comes together there's a magic to the film that's undeniable.
It doesn't all come together, though. Not enough to make it a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but enough so that you wonder during the good parts how they couldn't have foreseen the bad ones. The entire opening feels like a different movie, and things don't really begin to gel until Chris is on the road. The choice to have voiceover narration by Chris's sister (played by Jena Malone) adds nothing but bland observations and backstory that feel awkward, especially since there's a huge section of the film where it's abandoned, only to return near INTO THE WILD's conclusion. It's almost as if Penn didn't have enough faith in his images, and wanted the audience to be sure that nothing was left unspoken. It's a shame, because left to its own devices the film conveys the sense of wonder and loss that the book captured so well.
"...At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."
Henry David Thoreau