Into the Wild 4 stars
Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener. Directed by Sean Penn. Released by Paramount Vantage. Rated R; 2:20
Sean Penn clearly identifies with the protagonist of “Into the Wild,” who shuns his materialistic parents, burns his cash and hitchhikes to Alaska. Only a director who shares the maverick spirit of Christopher McCandless could have achieved the exuberant filmmaking that the true story behind “Into the Wild” demands. But Penn also has accumulated the wisdom of a middle-aged man who recognizes the dangerous naïveté of McCandless. Christopher’s firmly asserted views on life burn with the passion — and ignorance — of a 24-year-old.
Penn’s achievement of capturing the thrill of Christopher’s wanderlust but calling out the young man’s misconceived ideas on family is what elevates “Into the Wild” to the sublime. It’s an exemplar of modern American cinema, breaking the confines of conventional narrative with a sprawling, time-fracturing structure that feels alive in ways few films do these days.
Penn’s expansive film is many things: an account of a real person, an adventure story, an instructional guide on how a life should be lived. Based on Jon Krakauer’s book, “Into the Wild” traces the footsteps of Christopher McCandless, who, in the early 1990s, graduated from Emory University, cut up his driver’s license, donated his savings to charity and cut off all contact with his family. He set out west, working odd jobs of harvesting grain fields and flipping patties at Burger King as he hitchhiked toward his ultimate destination, Alaska.
Emile Hirsch’s (“The Girl Next Door,” “Lords of Dogtown”) performance is pitch-perfect, striking a tricky balance between youthful idealism and melancholy introspection. The director and his actor acknowledge both the seductive pull and dangerous trappings of Christopher’s unconventional life.
Penn populates the broad American landscapes of “Into the Wild” with sharply etched characters who serve as beneficiaries of Christopher’s warmhearted idealism. They also act as gentle correctives of Christopher’s wrongheaded philosophies toward family. As a rootless hippie, Catherine Keener plays a woman who finds solace and heartache in acting as a surrogate mother to Christopher after her own son has run away. The grain farmer Wayne (a reliably chummy Vince Vaughn) warns Christopher about burrowing too deeply inside his own head. In the film’s most moving sequence, Hal Holbrook plays a widowed retiree who befriends Christopher.
The pair’s final scene together is a thing of understated beauty — Penn masterfully encapsulates the movie’s complex view of youthful spirit and youthful folly as Holbrook futilely attempts to extend his family lineage by trying to adopt Christopher.
The adventure stories of Jack London and the ideals of Thoreau jumpstarted Christopher’s two-year road trip, but his accumulated encounters with lonely souls cause him to revise his stubborn view on self-sufficiency. Penn, who wrote the nuanced screenplay, uses a Tolstoy short story — about the importance of family — as a crucial turning point in Christopher’s journey. As Christopher becomes stranded and battles starvation in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness, “Into the Wild” becomes something rare and grand: a lyrical roadmap of a lost soul seeking transcendence.