In Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog dived as directly into the psychological makeup of the individuals that would isolate themselves at the bottom of the Earth as he did the gorgeous vistas of the Antarctic landscape. If you decide to abandon a life in the civilized world to work in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on the planet, clearly you aren’t operating on the same wavelengths as the normal person. And that insight into people throwing themselves onto the mercy of nature is what makes Encounters at the End of the World one of the most fascinating documentaries of the aughts.
2007 saw the release of another film dealing in something of the same subject matter. Based off the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a dramatized peek into the real life story of the doomed Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless. Lost in the sea of Oscar-winner No Country For Old Men as well as perennial contender for Best Film of the Aughts, There Will Be Blood, I’d always thought Into the Wild has never gotten its proper due as one of the premier films of the late 2000s, and this most recent viewing only confirms that suspicion.
This viewing of Into the Wild made me think a lot about Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel On the Road (and by proxy, because of Kristen Stewart’s small role in this movie, the 2012 film version). I’ve always been confused by people’s interpretation of On the Road as a celebration of Sal and Dean’s hedonistic, nomadic lifestyle. Sal is a desperately lonely man looking for any meaning in his empty existence, and Dean is a mentally unhinged serial misogynist. That book has always been a piercing look into the sadness and lack of definition in the lives of youngsters unfulfilled by the materialistic excess of modern life. The road is simply the outlet for their nihilistic confusion. Into the Wild is cut from the same cloth.
In real life, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a highly intelligent and socially/politically committed young man fresh out of college at Emory University in Georgia. But Christopher suffers from some of the worst (and most realistic) PTSD in any mainstream American film caused from years of living in the shadow of his parents’ (American Gun‘s Marcia Gay Harden and Kiss of the Spider Woman‘s William Hurt) violence and anger-fueled marriage, and it has made him tragically sensitive to the hypocrisy and injustice of modern existence. And one day, without telling anyone, including his beloved sister (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), Christopher donates his entire life-savings to Oxfam and hits the road in his car never to be seen by his family again.
Christening himself with the road handle of Alexander Supertramp, Christopher throws his entire old life away (including losing his car early in the journey) and hoofs it on foot, train, and kayak across the entire US for two years before making his way to Alaska where his life would come to a tragically early close. The film frames the events of Christopher’s early life as well as his epic journey across America as Alexander as intermittent flashbacks during his attempts to survive the brutality of the Alaskan wild. And when Christopher’s only shelter in the Alaskan wild was an abandoned VW bus he found by accident, it’s a miracle he lasted as long as he did.
Into the Wild could be subtitled “Listen to These People Trying to Help You, You Idiot: The Movie,” and it would be surprisingly apt. Although the film does occasionally paint Christopher in a surreal messianic light (one of the flaws keeping it from perfection), it also never romanticizes the inevitable tragedy of Christopher’s mission. Chris meets a large number of people along his way, including Synecdoche, New York‘s Catherine Keener and On the Road‘s Kristen Stewart, and time and again, these strangers offer him the affection and companionship he’s been robbed off his whole life, but he consistently throws that away to continue his crazed goal of conquering the Alaskan wild.
And that’s the entire point of Into the Wild. For his entire life, Christopher has only known a life defined by arbitrary and hypocritical value systems: wealth, social ambition, markers of capitalistic success. And the people selling these values to him were as broken and full of shit as the values he espoused. His parents lived in an invalid marriage and he discovers he’s actually a bastard child. And this drives Christopher to seek the exact opposite of the world his parents inhabit: a naturalistic life devoid of the modern comforts (and vices) of civilized society. Only to late does Christopher realize that nature is as cruel and unforgiving (although perhaps more sincere) than his parents and the real world.
As a psychological study of what would lead a bright young lad like Christopher to give up on life and more or less willingly commit suicide, Into the Wild is one of the most powerful and overwhelmingly sad films of the aughts. As someone who has on more than one occasion found myself lost in the existential throes of wondering why this life is worth living, Christopher’s struggles rink devastatingly true. And when Christopher meets kind strangers like Catherine Keener’s loving hippie or Hal Holbrook (in an Oscar nominated turn) as a lonely old man seeking companionship, it’s perfectly clear why he throws their love away even though it’s precisely what he needs. He doesn’t know any world where that doesn’t lead to him getting hurt even more.
And beyond the heartache of watching one man’s foolish decision to destroy his own comfortable life, Into the Wild is overflowing with moments of such honest tragedy and horror that the film never slags (despite, admittedly, being far too long). During one of the Alaska segments, a starving Christopher (visualized by constantly notching a new hole in his belt) has finally killed a moose. But before he can cook it, flies immediately lay their eggs in it and the writhing maggots make it totally inedible. It’s one of the most terrifying and soulcrushing moments in mainstream American cinema. And it marks the clear beginning of the end of Christopher’s life.
It also doesn’t hurt that Into the Wild is one of the most beautifully shot films of the aughts; in fact, it might honestly be too beautifully shot which leads to its consistent misinterpretation as celebrating Christopher’s lifestyle. There is something utterly Malick-ian about the cinematography of this film with its stunning shots of the American countryside. If you’ve ever doubted the eternal beauty of the Yukon or grain fields in South Dakota or the Colorado River, even a quick viewing of Into the Wild will dispel you of such ignorance. Few films have ever managed to be so soul-boringly sad while also being so triumphantly beautiful.
Emile Hirsch carries the majority of this film on his shoulders and there are large spans of Into the Wild where there’s no one else on screen with him, and it was a hell of a performance from a young actor. I mostly knew Hirsch from his role in the raunchy comedy The Girl Next Door, but his dramatic chops were more than up to the task of portraying the toweringly complex Christopher. As Christopher realizes that he’s dying (because he’s accidentally ingested poisonous roots), I can name few actors who have more convincingly sold the knowledge that one’s life is at its end than Emile Hirsch in those scenes.
And, the film’s supporting cast borders on ludicrous. The criminally under-appreciated Catherine Keener shines as the hippy Jan who begins to see Christopher as a surrogate son to replace the one that ran away from her. Vince Vaughan plays slightly against type to great effect as the man running the combine that Christopher works for for a short time. She’s so bad in the Twilight films that I forgot what an exciting and memorable performance a young Kristen Stewart gave during her short stint in this film as a young folk singer living on a hippie commune that falls in love with Christopher during his journey.
But, rightly so, most of the attention in terms of performances for this film went to Hal Holbrook as the old man who offers Chris a random lift but finds his life changed by their encounter. Into the Wild is one of those films that is too sad to cry in during most of its run because it’s just so brutally realistic. But, when Hal shows up, and it’s clear that he’s lived a life of total regret since the death of his wife and son decades prior, a torrent of tears suddenly opened up in me. Holbrook plays the role with such subtlety and precision. It might be the most baldly emotionally manipulative arc of the film but when it’s performed so well, not even the cynic in me can raise a major complaint.
Which is not to say that there aren’t things worth complaining about in the film. The movie might not romanticize Christopher’s doomed quest, but it sure as hell romanticizes Christopher himself as a martyr of the “too pure for this cruel world” stripe. And that’s the wrong tack to take. Although the film doesn’t beat around the bush about the fact that Christopher borders on being mentally ill (as I said, he clearly has severe PTSD), it also has moments of him spouting faux-profound philosophical nonsense, and it’s not clear enough that you’re aren’t supposed to agree with what Christopher is saying. And, of course, the film is about thirty minutes too long.
And, there are moments where the camera work begins to get a little too “Hey! Notice me!” for its own good. There’s a moment where Christopher is showing shot in slow-motion as he whips his hair and beard in the water that is patently ludicrous and the spinning shot out of the bus after Christopher has finally passed away nearly wrecks the somber nature of the moment. I’m not saying that a static shot of his dead corpse was the right way to go, but motion sick is not the way to sell the death of the main character of your modern American epic.
Those are small complaints against what is otherwise one of the most refreshingly sincere and powerful American films of the aughts. Throw in a perfect score by Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, and there are very few film lovers that I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this movie to. I said this yesterday, but it bears repeating here, Into the Wild is a messy, flawed, overlong almost masterpiece. Like Gangs of New York and Das Boot before it, it is a film that comes as close to perfection as one can while still falling just short.
Final Score: A