“Society, you’re a crazy breed” croons Eddie Vedder. At a time when the country was deemed unfit for old men and there was too much blood flowing around, one man sought to break away from it all, literally – Sean Penn, or rather Christopher McCandless. Adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book on McCandless’ journey of the same name, Into the Wild is the definite heir to the throne of Easy Rider (1969) and my candidate of the best movie of the year.
Chris has just graduated and his parents are all smiles. But he is fed up by it all – bickering parents, neglected teenage, excessive consumerism, the rat race and the causal love. And quite predictably, he hits the road and assumes the name of Alexander Supertramp (yeah, you got that right!). Inevitably, he meets people – the lost, the loveless, the solitary and the disillusioned. Inch by inch he musters, courage and energy to go all the way to Alaska, to a space far from any traces of civilization and where nature is found in its nascent form. He sheds every ounce of materialism – money, cars and even human relations – in order to discover true happiness and ultimate independence. But does he really get it?
I was skeptical of the casting in this film before I watched it and had already started cooking up alternate ones. Emile Hirsch has got a face tailor-made for the innumerable teen comedies from Hollywood whose moment of fame comes as fast as their descent into oblivion. But his work in Into the Wild is one that shatters such prejudices. One can see the common youth of today in him - sans heroics yet full of revolutionary ideas. And more absorbing is the work of Hal Holbrook as one of the many loners Chris meets. Completely deserving the Academy nomination, Holbrook’s performance is one that leaves you emotionally shaken, even with its minuscule runtime.
I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the climax of the film being too abrupt and contradictory to the whole purpose of the film. Though I do agree with the minor rush towards the end, I have to strongly disagree with the debates on the content. Although the film is apparently about breaking loose and coming out of the cocoon of modern life, it is essentially one about moving into a shell that more restrictive than ever before. Chris bit by bit shuns himself from everything in spite of meeting elder counterparts who regret similar decisions of their youth. He thinks that by doing so he moves closer towards nature and genuine satisfaction whereas in actuality, he is overseeing original human emotions that transcend logic and materialism. So Into the Wild becomes a road movie which is anti-road in a way. This is encapsulated in the very final mesmerizing shot of the film as the camera starts from Chris’ eyes and moves out towards the sky leaving Chris alone in the bus that looks like a micro shell in the ocean of nature.
Two scenes would stay in mind for ever. The first one is at a phone booth where Chris notices an old man making up with his wife over the phone. The call time nears the end as the broke old man desperately tries to convince her. Chris chucks his own call and gives his quarter to the man who keeps talking for a minute more, in vain. Chris knows that the man is troubled but what he doesn’t know is that he is seeing his future self in the old man. The second one being the moment of farewell where Ron (Hal Holbrook) reveals his wish to adopt Chris – a scene that has to be seen to be believed.
Undoubtedly, Sean Penn has got one of the finest pair of ears for music and it shows. We all know his love for The Beatles but in Into the Wild he goes with a complete soundtrack by Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder. With each song encompassing whatever it takes to be a roadie and each track topping one another in terms of the freedom and the simplicity it offers, one can easily place Into the Wild in the top 10 Hollywood soundtracks of all time. “No Ceiling” could well be called the successor to “Born to be Wild” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
There is an Alexander Supertramp is all of us craving to get away into the wild. But sigh…Into the Wild is not a film that grows with the years. Rather, it is one that can potentially become an idiosyncrasy of the past. And that is the precise reason it should be watched now. Into the Wild isn’t just the movie of the year. It is the movie of our generation, soon to be taken over by a more bizarre, more radical and more cryptic way of thought and life.
P.S. If you loved the film, you might also be interested in this review of Kerouac’s On the Road.