One of the most polarizing films playing at Telluride this year was Into the Wild. Directed and written by Sean Penn off the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, the film follows the coming-of-age journey of Christopher McCandless, who "dropped out" shortly after graduating with honors from Emory College and walked off into the wilderness. After giving his $24,000 college fund to charity, and burning his drivers license, social security card and credit cards, McCandless set out on a spiritual quest to rebirth himself outside the context of materialism and societal definitions of "success." It's an admirable enough cause for a young person, especially in this age when there's so much focus on the materialistic success and what that means, and there's certainly a deeper philosophical question at the heart of McCandless' journey, but the choices McCandless makes along his journey will make the audience question his motives.
What is success, really, and what is happiness, and can you have one without the other? McCandless and his sister Carine, at least as the film tells their story, grew up with all the accoutrements of what upper middle class society would deem necessary for a happy, fulfilled life: a nice house to live in, parents who dress nice and drive fancy cars, a college fund to pay for school, his own car (a crappy Datsun he bought and paid for himself), enough food to eat, nice clothes to wear. He also, according to the story and the voiceover narration by Carine (Jena Malone), had parents who lied about their relationship (they met when his dad was still married to another woman, with whom he had a son -- something Chris found out about when he was older but never told his parents he knew), fought constantly and violently, and frequently put their children at the center of their battlles and constant threats of divorce.
It's hard to say if McCandless ran away from the world solely to escape his parents, or because he was, as his sister asserts, just different that way. Carine notes reflectively in the voiceover that her brother lived his life by the highest moral standards, and judged others accordingly; that may be so, but you also may question why a young man with such a strict moral code would leave even his adoring younger sister hanging like that, with no word, no phone call, not even a post card, as to whether he was even alive or dead.
Chris, who discards his given name for the moniker "Alexander Supertramp," meets a variety of folks during his time on the road: Wayne Westerburg (Vince Vaughn), a farmer in South Dakota who teaches him to drive a tractor and harvest grain, Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a pair of aging hippy rubbertramps on their way to Slab City in the desert, and Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an old guy who's pretty much given up on life until Chris crosses his path. All of these people question Chris/Alex and wonder why he's cut himself off from his family ("Be fair," Jan tells him. "You look like a loved kid."), but he has set himself irrevocably on a path that he's not ready to get off of.
That path ultimately takes him from South Dakota, to kayaking a river all the way down to Mexico, to Slab City where he meets up a second time with Rainey and Jan, and finally all the way north to Alaska, where his spirit quest really comes to a head. In the Alaskan wilderness, this boy who wanted to reject society, to find peace in communing with nature, will finally learn what it means to be truly and utterly alone as he struggles to survive in the middle of nowhere, without a map, a compass, or any way to call out to others for help.
Into the Wild is shot in a back-and-forth timeline, starting at one end with the beginning of Chris' quest and at the other with him living in an abandoned bus he found in the Alaskan wilds (the "Magic Bus" has since become a quest site of its own for other young people seeking to emulate McCandless' spirit journey). Penn makes some smart choices as a director, opening the film with Billie and Walt McCandless (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt, respectively) immersed in deepest grief over their son's disappearance. This allows us to feel sympathy for the parents, who are revealed later in the film to be at least partly responsible by their own choices for the path Chris goes down.
It's pretty evident that Chris is running from his childhood, from his family, and, most especially, from his father, and Penn draws an interesting parallel between the spirtual journey Chris takes in shedding his past and rebirthing himself as a new person, and his father's shedding of the trappings of his own role as a "judgemental, materialistic, controlling asshole." As the father's surface layers are stripped away by grief over his son's disappearance and, presumably, his own coming to terms with his role in his son's choices, we see a different side of him that, in an interesting paradox, make us want Chris to reach out to his family, even though he has no way of knowing the change he's wrought in the person he seeks most to get away from.
Marcia Gay Harden turns in her usual strong performance as Chris' grieving mother, and Hal Holbrook is immensely satisfying as Ron Franz, whose life is so touched by Chris/Alex that he wants desperately to keep Chris from leaving and to adopt him as his own. The real accolades here, though, belong to Emile Hirsch, who takes on the character of Chris McCandless and makes him his own. From wide-eyed, questioning college student to lean, hungry survivor on the brink of starvation -- and, perhaps, a touch of madness -- Hirsch (who reminds me of a young Leonardo DiCaprio in this film) brings Chris to life and helps us to appreciate the whys and wherefores of his choices, even if we don't always agree with him. Penn doesn't really seek to make us agree with Chris and like him, or not; he simply puts Chris' story out there, narrated by the most sympathetic character, Chris' sister Carine, for us to digest and mull over.
Did Chris make bad choices, stupid choices, even suicidal choices, along his path? Maybe so, but in his quest to find meaning outside materialism, in his tossing aside of societal conventions and expectations, and in reinventing himself as a new person whose primary goal was to shed his old skin, he also lived, perhaps, more authentically than most of us ever will as we trudge along our paths of 9-5 job security, health insurance plans, mortgages, and new cars every couple years. That, in a nutshell, is what makes Into the Wild so compelling; even as we feel anger at Chris for hurting his family, or frustration at his choices, or fear for what will happen to him, a part of us has to admire his courage in taking a leap that most of us would never be able to take.
Into the Wild plays the Toronto International Film Festival September 9 and 11, before opening September 21.