Every person has buttons: psychological switches which, when flipped, open a floodgate of emotion. For some, those buttons are hard to find and hard to push; others have so many obvious, sensitive buttons they are constantly on the verge of psychological collapse. I'm somewhere in between -- my buttons are hard (but not impossible) to find, and require a pretty steady, specific pressure to activate. But they can be accessed, and a particularly beautiful work of art, music or film will sometimes trigger one or two of them. Somehow, though, Sean Penn's new film Into the Wild manages to find pretty much every one of them, and leans on them mercilessly.
Into the Wild is based on the true story of Christopher McCandless (a side note: this same story also serves as the loose basis for my favorite episode of the late 1990's TV show Millenium: Luminary, in season 2), an upper middle class kid who, upon college graduation, decides to escape from what he sees as the hypocrisy and excess of modern life by becoming a vagabond. He donates his sizable graduate school fund to charity, changes his name to "Alexander Supertramp," and sets off, trekking across the country in search of the sense of the happiness in isolation he reads about in books by Thoreau and Tolstoy and London, but has never actually seen. Eventually, his quest takes him deep into the frozen isolation of the Alaskan wilderness, where he lives for months without human contact, and where he eventually dies. Details of his seemingly unknowable story derive from conversations with McCandless' parents (against whom his societal rebellion seems to have been aimed) and his sister (who seems to accept, if not quite understand, his journey), and from his journals and notes, found (along with his starved, dead body) by moose hunters in an abandoned bus weeks after his death.
McCandless is played with admirable sincerity by Emile Hirsch, whose simple, unflashy approach to the role aches with loneliness. Penn's film wisely fills basic outline of McCandless' story not with justifications for his rebellion, but with exploration of the the extreme decision and the emotional and intellectual rewards, and punishments, McCandless finds along his way. Penn manages to handle his sometimes arrogant, sometimes endearing hero (and the characters which surround him) with an assured, gentle touch, allowing the characters themselves to breathe life and meaning into this puzzling story and its tragic ending. Through Christopher/Alex's eyes, we see a world fairly choking with cruelty, where people prey upon each other without thought, are seemingly punished by society for acts of charity or goodness, and where, inexplicably, there's an expensive permit and a twelve-year waiting list before a man is allowed to paddle down a river. At the same time, through the eyes of Jan and Rainey (an aging vagabond couple played with fantastic sympathy by Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker) and Ron Franz (a retired soldier portrayed in a mind-boggling performance by Hal Holbrook), Alex is a loved but broken kid wandering far afield, who clearly needs not to be more alone (he eagerly tells anyone who'll listen about his plans for solitary adventure in Alaska), but rather to be surrounded by the warm embrace of people who love him (which, in McCandless' mind, does not include his own parents, deftly portrayed in fleeting flashbacks by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden). Sadly and predictably, Alex's childhood experiences lead him away from those caring people, and ultimately to his demise. Under Penn's direction, McCandless' journey is simultaneously noble and foolish, and McCandless himself is wise beyond his years and at the same time hopelessly naive. The fatal mistake he makes at the end of the film, the one the audience has spent two hours anticipating, is as powerful as it is tiny. While Into the Wild is brimming with gorgeous, grandiose cinematography, the film's heart is in the small things: a smile, a tear, a wild sweet pea.
So how does Into the Wild manage to flip my emotional switches? Honestly, I'm not one hundred percent certain. It gets access to them first by simply being really damn good. The acting, writing, direction and cinematography are simultaneously simple and breathtaking. Once the craftsmanship gains it total access to my brain, the film pours the exact right combination of aching loneliness, longing, hope and tragic failure into my emotional core to basically break me down. Fear of death and failure, of not living up to some imagined, but not quite understood, potential, and the constant hope that I might make something great of myself, lurks behind pretty much my every action, as those closest to me can attest. Somehow, Into the Wild unlocks and then feeds these drivers. Even now, days after seeing the film, the thought of it still affects me deeply, makes me pause to catch my breath and shake off the residual emotion. I'm hardly going to trek off into the woods on my own -- that's not my path. While McCandless' quest is far less foolish to me than to most who hear his tale, unlike McCandless, I'm not so narcissistic as to think that I'm alone in my longing, or that I can somehow find what I seek by abandoning everything (and everyone) I know and setting off on my own. But I deeply identify with the hope of becoming something better, something truer, than what I've so far managed to become.
Penn should be rewarded for this incredible work, Eddie Vedder deserves a nod for the haunting, raw and heartfelt soundtrack, and if Hal Holbrook does not receive at least a nomination for his protrayal of Mr. Franz, I'll be deeply shocked. While I don't expect everyone who sees Into the Wild will be turned so completely upside-down by it as I was, I do believe that anyone with the attention span to sit through its two and a half hours will be able to appreciate the beauty, thoughtfulness and tragedy of what is easily my favorite film (so far) of 2007, and will likely become one of my all-time favorites.