Brilliant. But I think you have to see it on the big screen to get that brilliance.
It’s Sean Penn’s interpretation of real events and characters in the life of Christopher McCandless (played incredibly well by Emile Hirsch) who transforms himself into “Alexander Supertramp”—the young man who walked into the Alaskan wilderness to find freedom from the materialistic world he grew up in and ended up losing his life to it.
There have been other interpretations that make McCandless look like a naïve wannabe Thoreau who underestimated the seriousness of the situation he got himself into. But Penn’s take is that McCandless went in with his eyes and heart and spirit open, found what he was looking for, and was ready to come back to civilization when fate intervened.
Several critics see the film as an expression of Sean Penn’s search for identity and freedom in his own life projected onto McCandless. And I can see that as probably part of it. But the last shot in the film seems to authenticate Penn’s perspective on McCandless’s adventure, at least to my mind. But see it for yourself and decide.
Critics have always done way too much comparing of others arts to “poetry” and the artists to “poets.” It always bugged me, mainly because the same newspapers and magazines that would proclaim someone a “poet of the camera” or a dance as “poetry in motion” ad nauseum, would never do an article on actual poets and their poetry!
I used to write to the New York Times and Washington Post and other newspapers when they would do that and point out that the chamber music they were comparing to poetry occurred at a recital for which maybe thirty people showed up on the same evening I or someone else did a poetry reading at which a hundred or more showed up, and yet I’ve never seen a poetry reading reviewed in those pages.
That said, I am now going to do exactly what I hate those critics doing and for the first time compare a movie to poetry and the movie-maker to a poet, INTO THE WILD works for me like a book-length lyric poem (which may seem like a contradiction in terms since most poems of book length are epic narratives, or epic in some other way besides length, but there are a few that are “epic lyrics” or just more lyrical than epic—see my own OF, or Gary Snyder’s only recently completed MOUNTAINS AND RIVERS WITHOUT END, which is a more appropriate comparison for this film).
Sean Penn has always expressed his love of certain poetry (like Bukowski’s when Penn was first becoming known) and in this film uses several references to poetic passages in the books of Thoreau and Tolstoy and others, as well as the voice of poet Sharon Olds on the voiceover track that adds to the often subtle but brilliant poetic imagery of the camerawork.
And though it may only be a coincidence, poet Alice Notley, who has recently gained wider attention in the media, including a full page rave review in last week’s Sunday NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, seems to be alluded to, at least in my mind, by the teenage hippie singer-songwriter in the film who looks almost exactly like the young Alice did, who as a young girl was also a product of the dessert Southwest (though years before “hippies” etc.).
That may be going too far in seeing the relationship between the world of poetry and INTO THE WILD, but still, if you let go (or I do) of any other interpretation of the life and adventures of the young protagonist of this film, and allow Penn’s version its due, I believe you, like I, will have an overwhelmingly moving experience, unlike any other movie might provoke.
As a filmmaker, this is Sean Penn’s masterpiece (as, for my taste, his role in DEAD MAN WALKING was his acting masterpiece). But, like I said, I think you have to see it on the big screen to get the full impact of its artistry and emotional power. I recommend that you do.