Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild has the distinction of being the only book that I ever read straight through in a single day, a testament to the absorbing nature of the story and Kracauer’s journalistic acumen. Sean Penn’s filmic adaptation, on the other hand, might take you days to finish if at all, though it’s only (only!?!) 140 minutes, because of the constant temptation to walk out or shut it off, depending on the circumstances of your viewing. Penn’s film is nothing but a long string of montages (just one is usually the bane of good filmmaking), accompanied by an ostentatious and instantly dated musical score, and only occasionally punctuated by proper scenes, whose lengths are invariably less than that of the lifespan of a struck match. Add to all of this the excessive and ornate voice-over narration (also the bane of good filmmaking), and you get American filmmaking at its laziest and most astoundingly pretentious.
Penn’s film is unrestrainedly verbal, the screen often cluttered with excerpts from books and letters, demonstrating that Penn has no concept of the differences between prose and filmmaking. (And as such has no business directing a film!) Added to this, he has only the most simplistic understanding of his source material. Into the Wild, both book and film, tells the true story of a twenty-something year old kid named Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, who upon graduating from college ran away from his complacent middle-class life, burning his cash and donating his savings to Oxfam, to search for a life of Thoreauvian independence, embarking on a quest for that uniquely American brand of natural, spiritual freedom. “If you want something in life, reach out and grab it!” he preaches in the film. McCandless eventually wound up in the backwoods of Alaska where, after a few months of successfully surviving off the land, he ultimately died of starvation. In Kracauer’s book it’s a story about the complex relationship between parents, both biological and adoptive, and children; the common youthful impetus for independence and adventure; and the call of the wild; it’s also about the potentially fatal dangers that come with the latter. Where, in Kracauer, McCandless’ story is complicated, inspiring feelings of ambivalence, of both admonishment and inspiration, in the reader, though always through the author’s sympathetic lens, in the hands of Sean Penn, who directs with the maturity of a thirteen year old who’s just discovered The Catcher in the Rye, it emerges as an odiously smug and self-righteous polemic against American materialism.
Penn facilely reduces McCandless’ motivations to a repudiation of his mean and miserable parents, the stern father (played sacerdotally by William Hurt) and the passive-aggressive mother (Marcia Gay Harden), both drunks. (A welcome moment of comic relief, perhaps unintentional, comes from a flashback in which a drunken Hurt declares he’s canceling Christmas and an even drunker Harden replies, “Who do you think you are? God?”) Where the McCandless Kracauer presents cuts a complex and confusing character, Penn cuts him down with easy psychology to a kid who won’t live his parents’ “lies” within their “sick society”. The journey into the wild is posited as a maturation of the soul, with chapter titles (more verbalization!) like “adolescence” and “manhood”. Penn the partisan comes out to criticize American cultureâ€”soulless, natchâ€”a few times; once, in a ridiculous scene in which Hirsch gets dirty looks from some cartoonish Angeleno yuppies; again when Hirsch makes it back to civilization after a stint in the wilderness only to see George Bush Sr. declaring War on Iraq; and most egregiously when he shows a bald eagle, with a gang of coyotes, feasting on the meat from a moose’s corpse, a clumsy metaphor for how America and its “rules” are weighing-down on the yearning (and libertarian) McCandless. The “characteristic immoderation” that Jena Malone, as Hirsch’s sister (they were last seen acting together as lovers in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys), defines her brother by also applies to the film’s director.
There are a lot of ways to tell McCandless’ story, but unfortunately Penn goes, and rather haughtily to boot, for the rote Hollywood style of uncritical celebration. It’s really remarkable that such a proficient actor hasn’t got the slightest bit of directorial intuition. While Kracauer never mistook sympathy for apotheosis, Penn relentlessly beats us over the head with McCandless’ rectitude and admirability. The whole approach is neatly summed-up by a mid-film scene in which Hirsch is seen kayaking in Southwestern river rapids; the staccato editing gives the sequence a pulsating energy, buttressed by the sound of off-screen observers shouting “woo hoo”s of encouragement and a rollicking blues soundtrack, which leaves the viewer no possible recourse but to either stand-up and play air guitarâ€”isn’t this kid awesome?â€”or roll their eyes and fidget uncomfortably.
It should be noted that the categorical failure of the film is entirely Penn’s responsibility, and lies not with the actors; Hirsch is fine in the lead, with a few very nice moments, such as an improvisation with an apparently delicious apple, and Catherine Keener, as a surrogate mother of sorts that Hirsch meets on the road, is especially effective. But Penn’s strongest talent, and his only talent (outside of acting of course), is in the casting of old men; two marginal, elderly actors give some of the film’s most stirring performances: one, a trembling gent on a payphone, heard obscurely begging to be given “another chance”; and two, an artist/burnout/religious fanatic that Hirsch comes across in the desert. But the film’s real gem is Hal Holbrook, who turns up in the last act playing one of the many surrogate fathers Hirsch comes across in his peregrinations. Holbrook and Hirsch have an intimacy almost entirely missing from the rest of the film, probably because Penn’s directorial stamp is largely absent from these scenes, supplying a palpable tenderness that builds to a heartbreaking climax. Make it through the movie if you canâ€”it’s length is more numbing than exhaustingâ€”just to get to Holbrook’s scenes. Somebody give him an Oscar!