Starring: Emile Hirsch, William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden
Director: Sean Penn
THIS is a very impressive film in its characters, scope and the wonder and beauty of the locations.
Many audiences will find it a very interesting and challenging story. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if some audiences did not find the central character interesting or sympathetic and gave up on him and his journey.
Into the Wild is also quite long at two and a half hours.
In the late 1990s, author Jon Krackauer wrote an article and then a book on the quest of a young man from a comfortable family who, after graduating college, gave his money to Oxfam, took his old car and went on what was a two-year journey in search of meaning, of himself and of America.
So much of his time was spent alone, in reading and writing a diary. This itself presents a challenge to a film-maker who has to find ways of communicating an inner life while keeping the narrative moving.
Sean Penn began preparing his film a decade earlier and was finally given the green light by the parents and sister of the young man, Christopher McCanless.
The cast had many discussions with the family – and their allowing the film to be made is courageous as the parents do not come out of it well.
Sean Penn has proven himself as an actor (from Dead Man Walking to Mystic River) and has directed some arresting films, The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge.
This film works on several time levels to draw the audience into the complexities of the young hero’s life and relationships: his timeline of his journey is followed alongside the detail of the final months of his time in Alaska at the end of the journey.
Into these stories (along with chapter headings indicating birth, adolescence, manhood and, significantly, the getting of wisdom) flashbacks of childhood are inserted.
These have been filmed in home-movie style which makes these parts of the story more credible.
Emile Hirsch has appeared in a number of strong films, especially The Emperor’s Club, Imaginary Heroes and Alpha Dog.
This is certainly a breakthrough performance as the whole film focuses on him: the brash young graduate, the individualistic young man in search of meaning, the young man who works on farms and in Burger Kings to support his journey, the idealistic and naïve young man who encounters a whole range of people, especially on the margins of society, and finds warmth and friendship rather than hostility, the emaciated young man who finds himself trapped in an old bus in the snow and ice outside Fairbanks.
You might not like Chris, who renames himself Alexander Supertramp, and disagree with his attitudes and behaviour, but Hirsch certainly brings him alive.
William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden have few moments on screen but create strong impressions of the parents. Jena Malone appears and does voiceover story as the sister.
Along the way, Chris meets two older hippies, Catherine Keener and Brian Diercker, and is an unaware catalyst for change in them, the man actually mentioning that Chris was like Jesus.
Vince Vaughn is also very good as the friend who employs him on the harvester in the plains of Dakota.
Particularly impressive is the encounter with an old man, played with conviction by veteran Hal Holbrook (81 at the time of filming).
Since this occurs in the final part of the film and we have already had quotes from Byron, Thoreau, Jack London and Tolstoy about nature, beauty, solitude and relationships, we are ready for their mountaintop discussion where the old man helps Chris realise that he is on a quest for God.
This is a wonderful road movie, with vivid pictures of Dakota, Arizona, rapids and the Grand Canyon, Los Angeles, California deserts and communes, the west coast and its mountains and, as the goal of Chris’ quest, Alaska.
One thing that Chris, Alexander Supertramp, comes to realise is that we are not meant to be alone and happiness is life shared.