Friday, November 16, 2007

Into the Wild: Snapshots of the Heart

Based on Jon Krakauer’s book about the true story of Chris McCandless, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is a powerful movie. As a writer-director, Penn has a way of cutting to the bone of his subject—he has an eye and ear that is almost unique in American movies, and he manages to be soulful without a trace of sentimentality (he gets away with lines that would turn to mush in anyone else’s hands). There’s a core of pathos to his film which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before.

This may be personal prejudice: the story of a young post-graduate student who gives up his inheritance and abandons a cozy life to wander across the US without a word to his family, and who ends up dying alone in the wilderness of Alaska, has special resonance for me because I did something similar, at almost the same age as McCandless. I didn’t go to the wilds of Alaska and live in a bus—I went to Morocco and lived hand-to-mouth on the streets of Tangier—but the intent was the same: to get free from the suffocating context (and comforts) of a life that had defined me, and see what remained.

Chris McCandless is played by Emile Hirsch, last seen as the despicable Johnny Truelove in Alpha Dog, and it’s hard to imagine two more different roles. Hirsch has just the right qualities of strength and guilelessness here, the innocence and stubbornness that characterized McCandless. Chris is only interested in getting to the truth, whatever the cost in suffering (starting with his own: since his heart was broken, he has no qualms about breaking anyone else’s). By the end of his journey (we know this because he kept a journal), he realizes that whatever truth or happiness he finds in the wild is meaningless without someone to share it with. His desire to connect to Nature and so come to know his own truth is incomplete without a connection to others. This may be the final truth that McCandless realized; in a way, it’s the truth that killed him—or rather, that he had to die to discover.

It’s tempting to call Into the Wild a tragedy. It’s devastatingly painful to watch and the tendency is to seek a word to encompass that pain. But I don’t think it’s true; Chris made a choice to live on his terms; if someone had asked him if he was willing to die for them, I have no doubt he would have said yes. He died doing exactly what he wanted to do, and where’s the tragedy in that? If anything, Chris was an old-fashioned hero on a traditional quest for truth, but he was not a tragic hero. His “flaw” was in his naiveté, but this was inseparable from his integrity and vision: he knew he might die in Alaska but went anyway. He was prepared; it’s just that his preparations weren’t enough.

It's been years since I read the book, but so far as I know (and by most accounts), the film sticks close to Krakauer's account, which was itself close to being an accurate report of Chris' journey. Yet Into the Wild has the strength and simplicity—the moral force—of a fable, and with any luck that’s what audiences will respond to (those who don’t reject Chris outright as “selfish” or arrogant and dismiss his death as meaningless). What Chris chose—to leave it all behind and return to the wilderness to find out what he was made of—is surely something any sensitive person in today’s world can relate to. But it was more than a London-esque test of manhood or rite of passage (though it was certainly that), it was the searching of a poetic soul for meaning, of a highly sensitive and intelligent kid determined to strip away the layers that came between him and the truth, to remove all the masks and see what was behind them. In a way, Chris’ death was testimony not to his own folly, his obsession, but to the world’s failure to provide any meanings for Chris to believe in. The tragedy, then, is the tragedy of the world, a world represented by Chris’ parents, who pay the ultimate price for their failure, which is their incapacity to love their son in a way that is truthful.

If Chris unconsciously chose to die rather than to live in a world in which he found nothing—no values—worth living for, who can blame him? His death had more meaning than the life his parents wished for him ever could: it was at least his own meaning, his choice. As a writer and director, Sean Penn doesn’t belabor any of this. He doesn’t make the mistake of bringing the parable-like qualities of his tale to the surface. He focuses on the story and on bringing his characters to life, and lets the rest take care of itself; the metaphor is all the more powerful for being “found” rather than imposed. This is a true story, and what Penn has in common with his protagonist is an absolute commitment to—and an almost prodigious gift for—honesty. Scene for scene, I don’t think there is a single false note in the movie, and though the film is long, there’s nothing here that feels superfluous. All the characters bring something unique to the story; their presence serves to develop Chris as a character, giving him a context he would otherwise lack—their affection deepens him in our eyes. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as Chris’s parents, Jena Malone as his sister, Vince Vaughn as his friend and employer Wayne, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as an aging hippie couple he rides with, Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz, Kristen Stewart, as the achingly beautiful teenage girl who takes Chris to Salvation mountain, all provide bittersweet memories—snapshots of the heart—that Chris takes with him into the wild.

Penn occasionally overdoes his effects, most particularly his use of slow motion, and at times the film veers dangerously close to narcissism with imagery fit for aftershave commercials. And there are a couple of times when he borders on self-consciousness (such as when the old man Ron talks of God’s light and the sun breaks through the clouds); but these are just glitches in an otherwise flawless tapestry. Into the Wild is a tour-de-force, and yet (besides these moments) it never seems to be working on getting an emotional reaction. Penn doesn’t mess around; he gets his effects and moves on, his style is clean and confident—both poetic and prosaic at the same time. He lets the power of the images—and the emotional punch of the tale itself—carry the movie along. The film builds gradually, lyrically, with all the grace and tempo of an epic poem, into a devastating crescendo of imagery and a heartbreaking climax.

The empathy Penn shows for his characters (inseparable from the actors), his affinity for everyday Middle America (the film is shot entirely on location, often in Chris' exact "footprint," according to Penn), and the honesty and pathos of the film would be remarkable in any artist, but for someone once married to Madonna who has spent the past twenty-five years as a world famous movie star (Penn’s breakthrough role was in Taps, at 21 years old), it’s testimony to Penn’s integrity as an artist that the film is almost entirely devoid of inauthentic touches or condescension. It seems to come directly from his heart to us.

Into the Wild is an X-ray of the heart, showing all its intricacies and flaws, its longings and wounds. It draws a delicate yet raw portrait of the human condition honestly and compassionately, and it reveals the tragedy, not in Chris’ death, but in the possibility that his death was the only honest response to a life he refused to take part in. What Penn has done—besides the formidable task of presenting this sorrowful tale in a straightforward and truthful fashion—is what the greatest poets have always strived to do: to reveal the soul’s longings, and reflect our own souls back at us.

As Pauline Kael once wrote (of Francis Coppola’s Godfather Part Two): that’s the voice of the authentic hero.

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