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September 16, 2007

Into The Wild

Roughing It

Sean Penn Directs Chris McCandless’s Journey
By Cole Smithey

Into-the-wildSean Penn directs this thoroughly satisfying account of Christopher McCandless’s wilderness journeys that Jon Krakauer eloquently brought to light in his 1996 best-selling book. Emile Hirsch personifies the fiercely idealistic and self-absorbed young man who severed ties with his upper middle-class family in search of personal truths on a literary-fuelled odyssey that ended near Alaska’s Denali National Park. Intermittent narration from McCandless’s sister Carine (Jena Malone) combines with samples of her brother’s writing, and bits of text from the authors McCandless constantly read (Henry Thoreau, Nikolai Gogol, Jack London and Leo Tolstoy), to add layers of vital subtext. Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Brian Dierker, and Kristen Stewart contribute memorable supporting performances as people won over by McCandless’s ineffable charms.

For a story so fraught with potential landmines, Sean Penn, the screenwriter, bridges delicate narrative constraints to fulfill expectations of audiences familiar with Krakauer’s book. He sides with Krakauer’s refusal to paint McCandless as either a visionary or as an idiot, something that some readers of the book have been tempted to do. What we see is a person who pushed himself to the edge at every opportunity. Insodoing Christopher McCandless compressed a lifetime’s worth of experience into a very narrow margin of time.

Upon leaving high school, Chris went on a fact-finding mission from his family’s middle class burb of Annandale, Virginia to the vicinity of El Segundo, California where he was born. There, he heard from past family friends about how his aerospace engineer father Walt (William Hurt) kept up relations with his first wife Marcia, even after taking up with Chris’s mother Billie (Marcia Gay Harden). Walt secretly split his time between the two women long enough to sire a another son (Quinn McCandless) from Marcia, two years after Chris was born. The dark revelation of his father’s base behavior instills a silent burning rage in Chris that he attempts to vanquish in the cold air of solitude as a method of passive resistance, rather than openly confronting his father.

After graduating in 1990 with a double major in history and anthropology from Emory University in Atlanta, McCandless gives away his life savings of $24,000 to a charity against hunger. He burns his cash and abandons his old yellow Datsun after getting caught in a flash flood in Nevada. His act of quiet defiance against society dispatches him through South Dakota, Oregon, California, Mexico, Arizona, Washington, and on to Alaska over the next two and a half years, during which time he renames himself "Alexander Supertramp." Sean Penn’s decision to film in many of the exact locations that McCandless traversed colors the story with an indisputable sense of authenticity. Especially significant is the film’s setting in and around the now famous "Fairbanks City Transit System 142" bus abandoned in the Alaskan wilderness.


On April 28, 1992, Chris McCandless hiked 20 miles into the Alaskan wilderness along its Stampede Trail with a .22-caliber rifle, a 10-pound bag of rice, and a field guide to edible plants of the region called "Tanaina Plantlore." He came across the abandoned shell of a 1940’s International Harvester bus in which he set up camp for the remaining 113 days of his life. During that time, Chris McCandless lived off the fat of the land, eating squirrel, porcupine, birds, and a moose. But McCandless made a fatal error by eating the toxic seeds of wild potato roots not mentioned as poisonous in the book he referenced like a bible. Before succumbing in his sleeping bag within the brief shelter of the bus Chris McCandless achieved his vision of solitary primal existence necessarily based on a hunting and gathering lifestyle far removed from the mechanized bubble of the Western world.

Chris McCandless’s story divides people. On the surface, it seems another instance of a young unprepared adventurer with a thinly veiled suicidal fantasy who gets exactly what he bargained for. The story is fraught with uncomfortable questions regarding the sins of the father, ambition, conformity, the demands of capitalism, and the nature of solitary freedom. But the layers of meaning, motivation, and purpose surrounding his experience come through in the letters he wrote to people he befriended on the road, and of their remembrances of their time spent with him. We come away feeling that we at least know who Chris McCandless was; a young man with a burning desire to simplify his existence.

Rated R. 140 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)



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