Freedom is defined as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants. With “Into the Wild”, director Sean Penn explores the true significance of this word and encourages the viewers to question if they are truly free. Released in 2007, “Into the Wild” is a movie based on Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book which recounts the true story of McCandless, whose persona appears as the main character of the movie.
Idealist Christopher McCandless, played by actor Emile Hirsch, is a 24 year old boy recently graduated with high honors at Emory University. His parents, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, are shocked when they find out their son’s bright and planned future has taken a 180º turn when he run away. Giving away his 24000 dollar law school fund, McCandless starts a two year trip with nothing but a soon abandoned car, a new name and the need to be free.
Renamed by himself Alexander Supertramp, this young man starts his voyage of self-discovery by driving west from South Dakota to Southern California and then to the Sea of Cortez. During his trip he encounters various people who he leaves a mark on and who inevitably mark him too. Rainey and Jan, a pair of hippies is the first to be delighted by Alexander’s charm and intelligence. Wayne, a hard drinking farmer, and Tracy, a girl that develops a crush on Alexander, are also some of the characters whose lives cross paths with our main character’s mission to reach his final destination, Alaska. Just before arriving there, Alexander develops a touching relationship with Ron, an elder whose life experiences and emotional conversations make the viewer dive into another topic: human connection. Finally, he reaches the Promised Land. With the Alaskan wilderness as the perfect scenery, Alexander Supertramp puts his theories into practice, testing himself and trying to find true freedom.
“Into the Wild” is not the typical movie, plot wise and structure wise. Penn uses a nonlinear narrative along with voice overs of his sister. Alone in Alaska, McCandless uses journals to document his adventure and delve into his idealist and romantic ideas of freedom, love and human necessities; greatly influenced by authors like Thoreau, Tolstoy and Jack London. Penn mixes with great artistry long wordless scenes filled with music and silent scenes in which only quotes are scrawled across the screen with meaningful voice overs and deep talks between the characters. Said wordless scenes are able to give the viewer time to contemplate and analyze the topics in this movie that usually fill the human brain with doubt and confusion; like living on the essentials, not belonging to a society and what it actually means to be free. To display these topics, Sean Penn makes use of various symbols.
At the start of the movie, McCandless shows his attachment to his old car when his parents offer to buy him a new one. Later on, he abandons it on the desert on his way to Alaska, acting as if his car is not a necessity anymore, which clearly refers to his rejection to materialism.
Although McCandless cuts ties with his family, he writes letters to the people he has befriended on the road and his sister. These allow the viewer to understand his feelings and views of life, but also represent McCandless’s need to connect with others. “You’re wrong if you think the joy of life comes from human relationships”, he tells Ron but, no matter how much he denies it, he needs human connection. Maybe it’s his hard relationship with his parents what makes him think loneliness equals freedom. “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” he quotes Thoreau, recalling his complicated childhood.
Accompanying this heavy philosophical load, we find breathtaking images of the Alaskan landscape that give nature a great prominence in this film, emphasizing how humanity’s capitalist and neglectful ways are destroying our planet. Also, the rich browns, ochres and sunset yellows, characteristic of the landscapes of North America, remind of the indie cinema of the 70s. But, the beauty of the scenes is not completely due to the scenery, but also the great techniques used by the camera men. The use of sudden changes in angles, scenes and light, accompanied by the excellent choice in music and great performance of Hirsch, of the final scene create the perfect finale.
All in all, Sean Penn is able to make the viewer question its understanding for freedom, love and what these value for them. He’s able to create a deep and hardly forgettable analysis on the need for human connection and belonging, while he explores human pain and materialism. He transmits the viewer the confusion that involves the searching of an identity and the freedom that lies in the own search of freedom. Altogether, it’s a movie that will not leave anybody indifferent.