Sean Penn has come a long way as an actor/filmmaker. One of the more personal films in Penn’s career seems to have been 2007’s Into the Wild. I also found Wild to be one of his best, and one of my favorite films from last decade.
Based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Wild tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who abandoned “the normal life” (even coming down to slicing his social security card) and set out on an odyssey in the early 1990s. While McCandless’ destination was Alaska, he traveled for nearly two years across America before making it there. Along the way, he affected the lives of many, including a hippie couple, an isolated older man, and a young, traveling girl. He also unofficially renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, seeking to redefine himself as a human being.
Penn uses a non-linear pattern to tell the story, moving back and forth between McCandless’ journey to Alaska and his actual experiences in the state’s wild outdoors. Such a layout allows the audience to gain equal doses of how he connected to others on his journey and how he “discovered” himself in Alaska (and along his trek). Penn also infuses flashbacks of McCandless’ life before he set out for a new life, showing how he was a recent college graduate and how his family was quite dysfunctional.
McCandless is played by Emile Hirsch in Wild. Hirsch gives the performance of his career (so far) in the film, becoming McCandless and impressively expressing all of the pains and joys that occurred along the man’s voyage. Though the character does seem a little blurry at times (there are many ideas surrounding the character and a lot of depth to him, but sometimes McCandless is hard to clearly connect to (fully) on a personal level), Hirsch is always arresting with his display of acting in Wild. Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, and Catherine Keener all contribute superb supporting performances as well. Hal Holbrook is the standout supporting player, though, playing an old man named Ron with strong emotionality. Jena Malone (as McCandless’ sister) also provides heartfelt narration, while Eddie Vedder punctuates the going-ons with his beautiful, original music tracks.
The direction by Penn is first-rate, allowing his tale to be more meditative and free-flowing (to great effect) than episodic, though he does use “chapters” as a way of transitioning the story. He lets almost every character have a shining moment, and sets the story against a mosaic of stunning imagery (Penn is aided immensely by the great use of cinematography and editing), allowing the scenery to become a character of its own. Penn also does a fine job at exploring the themes of the film through both imagery and Malone’s narration. Such intriguing themes include: the “illusions” of money and power, the struggles of parenting and being around strict parents, and both the happiness and loneliness that can be found in discovering one’s self in the wilderness. The end result of Penn’s crafting is both touching and mesmerizing.
Wild does seem very personal to Penn, and (as I mentioned) McCandless is not always the easiest person to connect with, but the film never feels narcissistic–as Penn shares a lot of ideas with the audience and provides a lot to chew on. The movie is a little long, and has some slow patches, but I still found it to be compelling every step of the way. Wild is one of those character studies that gets under one’s skin and leaves a person thinking about it for a long time after it ends.
Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.