Sean Penn has been a director for a long time. Both The Pledge and The Crossing Guard are movies that meditate on the things that are unbearable in life: the death of a child. And indeed, it is this loss that often switches a gear in people that turns an otherwise happy life into one of quiet, lonely endurance. Parents who lose children must endure time. They must endure watching other children grow up. They must endure the physical agony of loss.
Sean Penn’s most astonishing film to date, Into the Wild opens on a mother flailing her arms at nothing. “It was him,” she says into the night. Her husband stirs. “It was Chris.” No matter what this woman has done, no matter who she is, it becomes so primal in that moment: her child is gone. For Penn, he is stating up front something that will become important by the time the film comes to an end.
In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless decides, after graduating college, to give away his life’s savings of $24,000 to OxFam and to hit the road. He packs a bag, burns his money (yes, literally burns it), and decides to go it totally alone. He is a young man who believes that roots don’t matter. There may be a day when he’ll want his mother, but that day seems as far away as his own old age. He has that inspirational burst of energy otherwise known as freeform immortality: he’s not only going to live forever but nothing and no one can touch him.
Penn chose the young actor Emile Hirsch to play McCandless, whose life story was told in the book written by Jon Krakauer. He also chose the unconventional method of voice-overs to tell the story. In other words, he chose not to dramatize much of it but to keep it focused on the feelings of those who were still alive to talk about it, namely his sister (portrayed in the film by Jena Malone).
The film follows the parallel stories of McCandless’ journey and his experience of losing himself to the wild. The sister talks about how her parents are feeling, what they might have done to cause the young man to want nothing more to do with society, sex, love, or companionship. The film doesn’t dwell on blame, however, and Penn chooses not to show so many scenes of the parents fighting, which was apparently the thing that tormented McCandless and his sister while growing up. It is as if Penn knows that laying blame isn’t as important in this story, though it does provide a bit of the “why,” as following a man’s journey through the key moments of existence. We parents already know where things end up in a person’s mind and heart. But young men don’t yet know.
One of the conflicts of watching the film is understanding the character of Chris McCandless. He is clearly not a savvy survivalist, and he gets his inspiration from people who can offer philosophical fulfillment but not practical advice on getting on in the great outdoors. Human beings evolved for a reason, and the key to our evolution is, of course, companionship. It takes a village not only to raise a child but also to butcher and store meat, to hunt for edible grub, to protect. We are a team, we humans. We are not designed for solitary living unless we have the basics: food, shelter, clothing, protection. So it’s difficult to watch the film without feeling a level of frustration for McCandless’ ignorance to all of that. It is the same basic idea as Grizzly Man, where you’re wondering how in the world anyone could feel totally safe around grizzly bears?
As McCandless makes his way to Alaska, he meets up with various people who are also sort of like islands – separate from “society” but with roots laid down, either in a place or with someone. The people he meets give him advice, food, and company. As he appears in their lives, it reminds them, in some cases, of their own absent children. Catherine Keener plays one of these, a hippie chick whose eyes reflect the sadness of loss. But probably the most moving encounter is with the unforgettable Hal Holbrook as a man who survived the deaths of his wife and child. He’s worn a groove, and he lives his life within it. Holbrook will be looking at his first Oscar nomination with the role. I have never seen such sad eyes, such heartache.
Penn’s film is one of the best of the year and will resonate with me for a long time. There are movies that are entertaining and movies that are moving, but very few of them are life-changing. Into the Wild is one of those. It reaches a level of profound meaning that few films attempt, let alone achieve. And though Penn gives credit where credit is due to the writer by stubbornly adhering to the “screenplay and directed by” credit, this is very much a Sean Penn film. He has shaped this story, carved the art out of the honest truth.
It is a heartstoppingly short life we live. McCandless went looking for purity of existence. But in the game of man vs. nature, nature always wins. We survive her; she isn’t conquered by us. That isn’t even the thing that McCandless learns, though, in his final moments. It is something altogether more profound than that.