This is an indefensible movie in certain ways, but I enjoyed it anyway. It would have profited from Orwell’s dictum about saints being judged guilty until proven innocent: Sean Penn basically treats Christopher McCandless as the questing would-be holy man he clearly took himself to be, while the other side of the story – about a reckless, charismatic kid who smashed up countless lives while chasing down his bliss, and whose pathetic death was a more-or-less inevitable consequence of his own foolhardiness – slips out involuntarily, between the sweeping landscape shots and Eddie Vedder songs. This is a rare case where I’m in agreement with David Denby, who wrote:
It’s possible to appreciate the implacability of this boy’s revolt without taking it as seriously as Krakauer and Penn do. McCandless rejects not only family and bourgeois life but also sensual life, and he’s incapable of sustaining an interest in anyone outside himself. The movie makes it clear that he has been heavily influenced by Tolstoy’s later writings, but apparently no one told him that Tolstoy, a Russian aristocrat and a soldier, renounced worldly pleasures only after a tremendous career on horseback, in bed, and at his writing table. Penn re-creates McCandless as a literal-minded saint who lives off the land and produces nothing but his own beatitude. He hasn’t experienced enough of life for his rejection of it to carry much weight, and Penn can’t see the egocentricity in a revolt that is as naïve as it is grandly self-destructive.
But in that first line lies the reason I enjoyed the movie in spite of itself: It is possible, as Denby says, to acknowledge that McCandless was a monstrous egotist and something of an idiot (he died, in part, because he couldn't ford a rising river to get back to civilization; a hand-operated tram crossed the river only six miles away, but he didn't know that, having gone into the wild without a single map) while also appreciating the extent of his revolt, the things that he gave up and the places that his wanderlust took him. He was a pampered suburban kid who gave away his trust fund, burned his paper money, ditched his car and spent two years off the grid - riding rails, hiring himself on a farm laborer in the Dakotas, riding the Colorado River down to Mexico - and anyone who ever thrilled (from the safety of a comfortable reading chair) to Huck Finn's decision to light out for the territories has to find something thrilling about McCandless's odyssey as well. The movie makes him out to be heroic, which he wasn't; but he was certainly fascinating, and taken in that spirit Into the Wild is for all its flaws a film worth seeing.
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