Marcia Gay Harden
In a world where anti-materialist sentiment has become the new religion of many, it is not surprising that Hollywood can see cash to be made in celebratory tales of those who wish to return to an imagined purity of Nature. There are many in the West who share, like some guilty secret, the words of Tyler Durden (as spoken by Brad Pitt) in Fight Club: “The things you own end up owning you.” Couple this with the modern fear that we’re living on a planet that’s about to expire, and you can join the dots between The Day After Tomorrow, An Inconvenient Truth and, now, Into The Wild.
Sean Penn is a director, much like Michael Moore, who clearly feels movies must preach before they can begin to entertain. Unfortunately, he has got that the wrong way round. Moreover, his latest Oscar-hopeful, a reframing of youthful naivet as ancient wisdom and a celebration of the nietzscheanisation of American youth, is fraught with tiresome problems.
Penn has adapted the eponymous biography, written by Jon Krakauer, of straight-A student Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who rejected his middle-class upbringing and the chance of a materially comfortable world in favour of asceticism and, specifically, a pilgrimage to Alaska where he hoped to live off the land. Reconstructed from McCandless’s journal, and with voiceover narration in part provided by his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), the film tells the story of Chris’s odyssey from college graduation to his arrival in the Yukon, with only a backpack full of donated tools, a book on edible flora and fauna and some notes on how to kill and preserve animals for food.
Through his encounters with a cross-section of Americans, from hippies to blue-collar workers to ex-soldiers turned ministers, he learns lessons about companionship, the value of family, and the difficulties of total self-reliance which, ultimately, lead him to dramatic life-changing reassessments of his choices.
In the hands of a more skilful director, and possibly one with less of a point to bludgeon home, there is much moose meat on the bones of this tragic tale for a very good film. Instead, Penn chooses not only to bore his audience with a meandering pace and meaningless authorial flourishes, but also to rob the story of its truth by sidestepping the issue of the evident mental illness of his protagonist. There is a challenging story to be told about youthful exuberance’s potential to descend into madness but this is not it.
Penn rather chooses to turn McCandless into something approaching the Second Coming, whose ability to aphorise from Thoreau, Tolstoy and Byron could apparently save marriages, rehabilitate criminals and give the elderly back their youth. He exaggerates without questioning, and even less evidence, that McCandless was drawn to this because of abuse in his family, and, using surreptitious references to the first Gulf War, implies some justice in his rejection of the modern world. This is a film written by a hippy with all that entails fuzzy logic, naivet and social selfishness.
There is no denying that McCandless had courage, however misplaced and messianic. Scenes which show this are genuinely moving because they show us a side of ourselves that, in the comfort of a cinema, we might feel we are denying. For the rest, though, Penn’s exercise in emotional manipulation, can only end up making us feel bad about ourselves and the world we live in; this, in my book, neither constitutes good entertainment nor good storytelling.