Review: ‘Into the Wild’ celebrates nature, misguided youth

Inspired by Jon Krakauer’s bestseller, “Into the Wild” is Sean Penn’s lyric and highly romanticized tribute to Christopher McCandless, the young Emory University grad who left his Atlanta apartment one fateful morning in search of ecstasy and found death, 27 months later, in the Alaskan wilderness.

It is a wondrous, even inspirational, tale at times, as the young adventurer yearning to free himself from the affectations of civilization — materialism, greed and conformity — finds peace in the cornfields of South Dakota and the Southern California desert. He works from time to time, earning just enough from a hard-partying farmer (Vince Vaughn) and a job at Burger King to finance his travels. But he is happiest when penniless and alone, savoring the solitude favored by one of his heroes, Henry David Thoreau.

It is the fantasy of a rugged individualist — one that Penn understandably embraces, though a bit too readily. McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who took to calling himself “Alexander Supertramp” during his long, strange trip, may have been on a quest for truth and spiritual purity, but he was also a troubled child, alienated from his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden). Whether his journey was spurred more by rebellious petulance or a genuine need to test his own limits is anyone’s guess.

Clearly, Penn guesses the latter. He sees McCandless’ odyssey as an awakening, an opportunity for him to find the life he always wanted, blissfully removed from the turmoil of his suburban, cookie-cutter home. To emphasize the point, Penn even breaks up his story into subsections with titles (“Chapter 3: Manhood”) that leave little to the imagination.

Penn’s affection for his wandering hero is never more apparent than during the long, navel-gazing sequences when McCandless indulges his passion for nature. Penn patiently trains his camera on Hirsch as he braves the Colorado River rapids, dashes through the desert and tracks game in the Alaskan wild, always with a euphoric grin. Penn eagerly shows us the primal beauty in the quest, but rarely the underlying dangers.

Perhaps he turns a blind eye to them, much as McCandless did, but to romanticize such folly seems foolhardy. McCandless offers sage advice to those he encounters — a kindly hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a retired military man (Hal Holbrook) eager to adopt him as his own — but his wisdom is borrowed from Tolstoy and Emerson. For all his pretensions, McCandless is a confused kid running away from home, not Thoreau at Walden Pond.

And yet it is impossible not to be moved by the hero when he is felled by his own naiveté. As McCandless rots away starving in the frozen Alaskan forest, his digestive system ravaged by poisonous berries, his warm grin gives way to wide-eyed terror, and for the first time the gravity of his situation dawns on him. It is a crushing moment, and Hirsch, who lost 40 pounds for the film’s harrowing finale, makes it all the more real with a performance that is subtly devastating.

“Into the Wild” is a tale of life needlessly lost by a young man who realizes, too late, that reckless self-reliance is not necessarily the path to self-awareness. That he fails to realize this sooner is tragic; that the film spends so much time celebrating the misunderstanding is bewildering.

Into the Wild **½

Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook

Written and directed by Sean Penn

Rated R

Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at

Just Posted

Construction in the Better Market Street Project between Fifth and Eighth streets is expected to break ground in mid-2021.<ins></ins>
SFMTA board to vote on Better Market Street changes

Agency seeks to make up for slimmed-down plan with traffic safety improvements

U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks during an event to name President-elect Joe Biden’s economic team at the Queen Theater on Dec. 1, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)
Kamala Harris to resign from Senate

Bridget Bowman CQ-Roll Call Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will resign from the… Continue reading

A view of Science Hall at the City College of San Francisco Ocean campus on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
CCSF begins search for next chancellor amid new challenges

‘It’s arguably the biggest single responsibility the board has,’ trustee says

Some people are concerned that University of California, San Francisco’s expansion at its Parnassus campus could cause an undesirable increase in the number of riders on Muni’s N-Judah line.<ins></ins>
Will UCSF’s $20 million pledge to SFMTA offset traffic woes?

An even more crowded N-Judah plus increased congestion ahead cause concern

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) speaks during her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Pelosi called for the impeachment of U.S. President Donald Trump a day after his supporters stormed the Capitol. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
Feds seeking woman whose ex says she stole Nancy Pelosi’s laptop during Capitol riot

Jeremy Roebuck The Philadelphia Inquirer Federal authorities have obtained an arrest warrant… Continue reading

Most Read