In a fitful and fitfully effective sidelight as a director, Sean Penn has been trying to make Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild into a film ever since its publication in 1996.
The resulting movie that hits theaters this week is clearly a labor of love. It’s also 150 minutes long, and while it doesn’t have too many dead spots, there’s no real reason for the length. If that were the movie’s only problem, it’d be in pretty good shape, but its watchability only points out its more severe flaws. The book documented the life of Christopher McCandless, a wealthy kid from Virginia who went off the grid in 1990 after graduating from college. Seeking some sort of purer existence, he donated his life savings to charity, abandoned his car, burned his cash, and trekked across the country on foot under the name of Alexander Supertramp. His journey ended two years later in the Alaskan wilderness, where he starved to death.
Penn’s biggest deviation from the book is his depiction of McCandless’ parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) as vicious and borderline abusive, which isn’t how they come off in Krakauer’s telling. The real-life McCandlesses cooperated with the filmmaking, so I guess they’re OK with being painted this way. The filmmaker also dispenses with the sections of the book that contrasted Chris’ life with Krakauer’s own, more cautious youth. This wise choice is offset by the less astute decision to introduce gobs of voiceover narration spoken by Chris’ sister Carine (played by Jena Malone) that’s supposed to clue us in to her brother’s character. This part of the movie could have been most easily cut.
Aided by cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries), Penn does his best to capture the romance of the open road, while Eddie Vedder injects some notes of foreboding and doom in his nine appropriately sparse new songs on the soundtrack. Emile Hirsch runs with the lead role and starves himself fearfully to portray Chris in the final stages of his life. Eye-catching as that is, the best parts of the film involve his interactions with the movie’s extensive gallery of supporting characters, from a melancholy hippie (Catherine Keener) to a guitar-strumming trailer-park girl (Kristen Stewart) to an old man (Hal Holbrook) who challenges some of Chris’ assumptions.
These actors do fine work and their characters provide perspective, but of all movies, this one needed less of that. Penn’s so busy giving his cast members their space that he forgets about the story’s essence: What drives a privileged and untraumatized kid so far away from human contact? McCandless was an outsized personality full of contradictions, yet the character we see here doesn’t dominate the screen like he should. The movie needed to be weirder and more subjective, like Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, a much more disturbing portrait of another real-life nature boy who went to Alaska thinking he could take on nature on its terms. We never get a handle on what Chris McCandless was looking for, and while his spiritual quest may have been fuzzy, the movie doesn’t even tell us that much. That’s why, for all its epic dreams, Into the Wild feels oddly empty.
Into the Wild
Starring Emile Hirsch. Written and directed by Sean Penn, based on Jon Krakauer’s book. Rated R.