There is a pleasure in the pathless wood,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.
The films of Sean Penn's directorial career have all carried the underlying theme of obsession. But until now, he has always shown the dark side of it-- "The Indian Runner," "The Crossing Guard," "The Pledge"--the latter two focussing on revenge, of sorts--the Need to get even, to balance the books, to set the world and Nature right. But with his Oscar-winning role in Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," he seems to have cauterized that need from his system. His new film, "Into the Wild," is just as obsessive but presents more of a spiritual quest. Nature is already balanced. Now one must become a part of it. Based on Jon Krakauer's book (which is expanded from this article on "Outside Online"), it dogs the footsteps of Christopher McCandless, who upon graduating from college, disappeared on a journey across the country and eventually to Alaska, where he tried to live off the land, and his body was found by moose hunters in an abandoned bus. If he wanted to become one with Nature, he achieved it. But there's no great trick doing that. As so often happens, the destination isn't as important as the journey.
Penn (who also wrote the complex screenplay) presents McCandless' Odyssey as a rite of passage, literally divided into chapters, starting with his shedding of everything tying him to a middle-class life like his parents (played cold and shrill, by, respectively, Willian Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), and simply disappearing, leaving no trace, and ensuring that he would have at least a couple months head-start before anyone knew he'd left. These chapters serve as flash-backs of a sort (given the opening of the film, the whole thing could be a flash-back) to McCandless' day-to-day life living in the abandoned bus/hunting drop that would unwittingly be his last stand. The narrative is punctuated by McCandless' writings in dreamy, floaty script, and a journal-like view from home from the perspective of his sister (played by Jena Malone). Each chapter begins with an extended montage played over songs by Eddie Vedder (which sounds like it could be horrendous, but Vedder's introspective lowing is the perfect counter-point to the images--one begins to look forward to the transitions). The results are never less than hopeful while never losing sight of the hardships along the way, the lessons learned and the experiences along the way.
Or the people. Along the way in the form of jobs worked, beds crashed, and meals shared, McCandless (who travels by the name of "Alexander Supertamp") encounters reflections of his parents and free spirits who push him to abandon his mental baggage, that, instead of establishing lasting ties, only steels his determination to complete his trek to Alaska. Here the movies shines with wonderful performances by Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn (who's great), Hal Holbrook (who is heart-breakingly good-he should be recognized for this) and some folks that Penn just found on location (including a guy named Brian Dierker, who runs a ski shop in Flagstaff, Arizona--first movie--endearing performance). And its here that if the movie has a weakness, it is that Everybody Loves Chris, wanting him to settle, and by having that be the sole reaction, one's manipulation-shield is engaged, wondering if Penn is stacking the deck, making his McCandless not merely charismatic, but near-messianic. Counter that with the fact that these people are road-blocks to his purposes, while being necessary way-stops on the journey, and those quibbling mountains become mole-hills.* I suppose one could have done more to balance his character (for example, including the opinions of the native Alaskans who thought him merely "stupid"), but short of showing him rolling a drunk, I'm not sure that such a pruning would be all that worthwhile. His encounters are already showing the roads not taken, it is THIS path that is the subject of the film. Anything else would be a detour.
I didn't want this film to end, frankly. It's truly exciting to see a director use a kaleidoscope of techniques to tell a story that celebrates life.
"Into the Wild" is a full-price ticket.
* I wrote this entire review without mentioning the amazing work of Emile Hirsch as McCandless--the guy's in the ENTIRE movie, and if McCandless is too much of a good thing, it's because Hirsch's performance is so constantly winning, and focussed. You're compelled to keep watching this kid, and fear that his next step will be wrong. It's an involving, remarkable performance. While Penn's work is astonishing, he has the best co-conspirator in Emile Hirsch. His next role? He's playing "Speed" Racer. He looks just like him, but...I mean, c'mon AAAAUGH!