by Laura Morgenthau
It’s a death march—a youthful, life-affirming one, but a death march nonetheless. Sean Penn's recent cinematic rendition of “Into the Wild,” follows the Kerouackian journey of Chris McCandless, an idealistic young college graduate turned ascetic-tramp who dies in a soul-searching journey through the Alaskan wild. And yet, as the movie closes on his tragic death, I found myself mourning not for McCandless, but for his tale that was never told.
Chris McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) has been a controversial character since John Krakauer first wrote about him in the January 1993 edition of Outside magazine. A young extremist prone to “characteristic immoderation,” McCandless donated his life savings to charity, severed ties with his family, and set off cross-country in search of a “spiritual revolution.” For some, McCandless is a sympathetic character—a free spirit, unshackled from the golden handcuffs that bind many Americans in a soulless, 9-to-5 grind. Others, however, view him as a selfish, foolhardy boy whose wasteful death cut a wide swath of suffering for his family and friends.
The debate resurfaced in 1996 with Krakauer’s best-selling book, "Into the Wild," and is once again swirling with the recent movie release. While Krakauer’s book explores both sides of the debate, director Sean Penn’s movie falls short on this point. However beautiful and entertaining the film may be, Penn’s shallow exploration of McCandless’ character inevitably takes its toll on the quality and lasting impact of this film.
The movie’s focus is clearly on the anguish other characters experience when they come to love and eventually lose this charismatic youth. Penn makes only a half-hearted attempt at emoting the joys of Chris’ wanderlust by showing Hirsch smiling blissfully as he revels in the natural world.
From the opening scene, in which his mother wakes in the night to cry plaintively and pathetically for her missing child, Penn frames McCandless’s journey as a heartless venture. The focus on those touched by McCandless continues throughout the movie. Time and again, the people McCandless meets on the road ask him if his family knows where he is. Penn neatly wraps up his message when, near death, McCandless scrawls in block letters “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” Smugly nestled in our seats, we can assume this silly child has finally grown up and realized the TRUTH according to Penn. But the bigger question of why McCandless did it, remains largely ignored.
Krakauer, on the other hand, not only acknowledges the selfishness of taking extreme risks, but also explores the deeper drives that inspire young extremists. Krakauer, it seems, is uniquely qualified to tell this story—he was a young extremist himself. Consequently, he draws on his own nearly fatal Alaskan foray to explore what spurs some young adventurers to plunge into the wild. Krakauer writes, “I suspect we had a similar intensity, a similar heedlessness, and similar agitation of the soul.” And it is this critical, nuanced exploration that deepens Krakauer’s McCandless and makes him both more sympathetic and more interesting than the movie persona.
Despite its shortcomings in character development, the movie had high points. For one thing, it was beautifully shot. Moments of startling brilliance, such as the jaw-dropping scene in which McCandless tight-ropes along a fallen tree on the Pacific Crest Trail, revealed McCandless’ nature in all its splendor.
Equally brilliant was the soundtrack. The poignant, dead-on crooning of Eddie Vedder spoke to McCandless’ care-free wanderlust. Vedder’s throaty voice against a plucky acoustic backdrop unequivocally captured the simple spirit of life on the road.
But the luster of these cinematic peaks could not, in the end, completely outshine the film’s shortcomings. With his heavy-handed, almost uni-dimensional portrayal of McCandless, Penn missed a mountain of opportunity to explore the complex psychology of a character who chose to escape into the wild.