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
Running time: 2 hours, 27 minutes