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Into the Wild

Based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction bestseller, Sean Penn's gorgeous, tragic Into the Wild is both an advertisement for wanderlust and a sobering cautionary tale.


In the summer of 1990, after graduating from Emory University with grades good enough to get into Harvard Law, upper-middle-class 22-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) gave his $24,000 life savings to Oxfam and hit the open road. Christening himself Alexander Supertramp, the idealistic McCandless proceeded to wander the country's highways and byways for two years before striking out alone into the wilds of Alaska. Anyone who's read the Jon Krakauer book knows what happened then, but those who are new to McCandless' story will be holding their breath as his journey progresses toward its sadly inevitable end. The beauty of director Sean Penn's film is the route it takes to get there, introducing viewers to the people Chris touched during his travels and making it clear what he learned about love and forgiveness along the way.


The success of a movie like Into the Wild depends disproportionately on the talents of its star. Luckily, Hirsch doesn't disappoint. Simultaneously charismatic and aloof, he makes Chris both an enigma and an Everyman. Whether he's exulting in a panoramic view of the Alaskan wilderness, shooting roiling river rapids (impressively, no stunt doubles were used), or learning how to operate a combine machine, Chris/Alex is completely aware--and appreciative--of every new experience life brings him. His quest for truth and authenticity affects everyone he meets, from hippie couple Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) to fast-talking entrepreneur Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and lonely leather worker Ron Frazer (Hal Holbrook). Meanwhile, representing Chris' abandoned, conflict-ridden homefront, Jena Malone provides heartfelt, nuanced voice-over narration as Chris' sister Carine.


Filming Into the Wild was a labor of love for Penn, and his affection for the material shows in every frame. Like Chris, Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier rhapsodize over sweeping vistas and pristine countryside, lingering on the way sunlight glints on water droplets and the beauty of a freshly harvested field. Penn is in no hurry to tell Chris' tale; he lets it unfold naturally, its rhythm matching the ebbs and flows of Chris' journey. Aiding him every step of the way is the film's powerful soundtrack, which features original music by Eddie Vedder. Whether building momentum or accompanying Chris in moments of quiet contemplation, the film's music is the traveling companion Chris doesn't realize he needs until it's too late. Blending sympathy for Chris' motives with regret for his tragic end; Into the Wild is a thoughtful biopic that's both inspiring and chastening.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.