Into the Wild

Review By: Michael Dance

In 1990, when Christopher McCandless was twenty-two years old, he graduated from college, gave away his $24,000 in life savings to charity, burned everything in his wallet, and disappeared without telling his family. He hitchhiked from the east coast to South Dakota, Colorado, Arizona, and California under the name Alex Supertramp, occasionally taking jobs and falling in with people before inevitably disappearing again. In 1992, he was found dead from starvation inside an abandon bus near the Stampede Trail in Alaska.

The story is uncannily fascinating, and whatever your views on McCandless "” saintly, idiotic, inspiring, pathetic "” it sure makes for an amazing adventure. Jon Krakauer told McCandless's story in the 1996 book Into the Wild, which Sean Penn read and immediately fell in love with. He went after the movie rights, but it took the better part of a decade for McCandless's parents to make up their minds. They finally gave the go-ahead, Penn made the movie, and now Into the Wild is here, and it's incredible.

Those of us weary of Penn's image as a prominent Hollywood liberal needn't worry "” he doesn't appear in the film and proves himself as a strong director, shooting on location throughout the country, and the only politics you see are when George Bush Sr. appears on a TV in the background to remind us we're in the early '90s.

We start out at McCandless's college graduation, and the early scenes with his stiff, wealthy parents, played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, are muted and stifling. (Their portrayal is unflattering to put it mildly, and it's frankly impressive that they ever let the film get made.) Once McCandless breaks free, however, the color palette expands, the music starts rocking, and the film rides a wave of pure energy that never lets up. Even Penn's direction, however, is only support for the central beacon of the movie, Emile Hirsch.

It's a brilliant central performance. Hirsch simply lights up the screen and never burns out. Playing McCandless as he apparently was in real life "” wild-eyed, simple-minded, and self-absorbed, but with an eagerness that was impossible not to be swept up in "” he carries the film so tirelessly, it's as though he's always one step ahead of everyone on the crew. This is a film that required its star to be in nearly every scene, kayak through rapids, hike through every manner of wilderness, and literally starve himself, and Hirsch throws himself into everything with an excited smile. In a sense, he really does become McCandless for this role.

The screenplay, by Penn himself, is structured in a kind of ingenious way, equating the steps of McCandless's journey with the progression of life. It's split into five "chapters" "” Adolescence, Adulthood, etc. "” that succeeds in showing us how McCandless lived a very full life in only two years. The story ends in death, everyone knows, it, and somehow it manages to be uplifting.

McCandless of course encounters many people during his journeys, and they're often played by familiar faces. At 140 minutes, the film might have benefited from shaving ten to fifteen minutes off its running time, but its rare you get this many characters who all feel like flesh-and-blood people, even in truth-based stories. Vince Vaughn shows up in a more down-to-earth, world-weary version of his usual persona. A hippie played by Catherine Keener becomes a kind of surrogate mother. Kristen Stewart plays a lonely teenager. The most emotional of these roles is played superbly by Hal Holbrook; playing a lonely old man, it is here that the movie most resembles a tragedy, as McCandless finds a truly loving guardian figure, and a deeper spiritual understanding of things, but refuses to give up on his ill-fated trip to Alaska.

Why did McCandless abandon every relationship he formed to go to Alaska, where he would, through unpreparedness and inexperience, starve to death? The same quality that makes him such a charming figure is also what makes him so infuriating: an immature, irrepressible sense of wanderlust. It's a paradox that exists without a solution. He never once talked to his family after leaving them, even his sister Carine (played by Jena Malone, who occasionally narrates some family backstory), with whom he was quite close. And yet he's also an inspiring figure, a guy who really did live life to the fullest but became a victim of the motivation that had otherwise served him so well.

I guess it boils down to this: over the summer, I read Jack Kerouac's On the Road for the first time. Expecting to find myself imbued with the need to immediately take a road trip, I instead read the book as simply a curiosity, an outdated portrayal of vaguely unlikable characters with fuzzy goals and no motivations. Watching Into the Wild, I was fully aware of McCandless's flaws but nonetheless felt a burning desire to sleep in the wild under the stars. This is a great film.

Movie Grade: A


“Into the Wild” is based on a true story and the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer. After graduating from Emory University in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless (Hirsch) abandons his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters that shape his life.

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