I really wanted to love "Into the Wild," and I did like it, but there was one central obstacle at its core that kept me from fully embracing the movie: Christopher McCandless, for all the lionization he received from Sean Penn in this often visually stunning movie, was, in my view, a spoiled and extremely selfish brat.
Now, I concede that that has as much to do with me as the movie itself, but it is a major drawback when you can't get past the gnawing feeling that this kid who's smiling back at you during his cross-country journey is as much a smug bastard as he is simply a misguided youth. Now, I understand that young Mr. McCandless didn't do anything at all criminal, but I couldn't help but get a similarly creeped-out sensation as to the one I had while watching "Capturing the Friedmans." That movie, however, lingered with me for a long time, and I know that Sean Penn's challenging film will too.
In order to continue what is quickly developing into a tirade, but which I assure you will eventually get to the many charms of this flick, I'm just going to have to assume that you have either seen it or are at least a little familiar with the story of the West Virginia native who turned into an ill-fated modern-day Thoreau. If you haven't seen it and want to, and I do encourage everyone to do so, you only have until Thursday to do it in Macon.
So, why did I have so much trouble watching young Mr. McCandless disintegrate on-screen? After all, I like to think I have a little wanderlust left in my soul. I have every intention of returning to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup, for example.
I guess I turned on our hero so early in this movie when he dismissed so quickly the accomplishment of graduating from Emory University, something his parents must surely have contributed to at least financially in some form. In short order he gives away all his money, burns all his identification and sets out across the country, leaving behind all the people who loved him. Now, as Penn lays out and, since they cooperated with the movie, I have to assume is true, his parents were a bad match from the start who passed many of their issues on to their offspring. But he also left behind a sister who clearly loved him unconditionally, and her narration in the film gives it much of its emotional wallop.
OK, enough about our (for me, at least anti-) hero. What about the movie itself? Well, for someone who supposedly hates America, Penn has constructed, in McCandless' journey, a visual valentine to this country. And the many people who try and reach out to McCandless, played with determination by Emile Hirsch, are almost universally full of love and the will to stop him from completing his journey to oblivion.
In vision and tone, it is certainly a big step forward for Penn as a director. Like Terrence Malick with thankfully more appreciation for the story he is telling, he clearly has enough love of nature's beauty to give us a sense, no matter how misguided he was, of what would drive McCandless to do this.
And the people he meets are all colorful characters played with style by actors I love. It makes it all that much harder watching the great Catherine Keener, as a hippie living in Slab City when she's not motoring around with hubby (at least, I think they were married) Rainey, played by Brian Dierker (apparently a ski shop owner making his first movie appearance.) To watch her unburden all her troubles to McCandless (who calls himself Alexander Supertramp for much of the movie) and to hear him then later talk about how meaningless human ties are was just painful to watch.
But the real gut shot comes near the end as Hal Holbrook, like you've never seen him before, makes a last-ditch effort to save McCandless. It's in this final, and yes, I'll say it, transcendent, chapter of McCandless' life that Penn's movie is at its strongest. Extreme spoiler alert: Don't read this sentence if you haven't seen the movie: Seeing McCandless slowly write out the lesson he should have learned well before his pretty pathetic end was the first thing that - yes, I'll admit it - made me cry a little during a movie this year. Hal Holbrook should start preparing his Supporting Actor Oscar speech now.
In summary of a review/rant that turned out much longer than I originally intended, Sean Penn's often-great movie lays out the journey of a truly troubled soul and lets you make your own decision (as I clearly did) about his choices. It's a challenging movie, and one I encourage everyone to experience in its big-screen beauty while you still can.