As screenwriter, Penn has done a superb job of giving shape and dimension to characters who passed only fleetingly through Krakauer’s pages—the fellow travelers McCandless encountered on his journey and whose lives, in some cases, he irrevocably altered. They include the South Dakota grain-elevator operator Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn); the neo-hippie earth mother Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), who sees in Chris—who was by then calling himself Alexander Supertramp—the ghost of her own estranged teenage son; and the octogenarian widower Ron Franz, played by Hal Holbrook in a performance that is as much a thing of beauty as any of the film’s ravishingly photographed wide-screen western vistas.
Penn also seems more engaged with the language of cinema here than he has in any of his previous directorial efforts (which include the excellent The Pledge and the overwrought The Crossing Guard). He freely toys with form (multiple narrators, passages of text scrawled across the screen) in a way that sometimes feels self-conscious, but which lends Into the Wild the sense of experimentation that emboldened the great American films of the 1970s.
It is a feeling enhanced by the presence of several original songs composed and performed by Eddie Vedder, which do not merely regurgitate the story of the film but in fact are integral to the telling of it. Most of all, Penn allows Hirsch the space he needs to build a performance of enormous physical and psychological rigor.
The criticisms of Into the Wild are easy to anticipate. Is the movie too long? Probably, at least by that hallowed yardstick that says a film must move rapidly from point A to B—something McCandless himself was in no hurry to do.
Is it less than judicious with respect to McCandless’s parents and sister, who exist in the film mostly as fragments of memory, phantoms of a discarded existence? Arguably so, until you consider that, during his entire two years on the road, McCandless failed to place so much as a single phone call home.
Part of the enduring fascination with McCandless, of course, is that his story tends to mean considerably different things depending on where you’re standing—whether you are parent or child, restless wanderer or happy conformist. Penn’s triumph is that he manages to see McCandless as both boy and man, prophet and fraud, vagabond and visionary. Which is, I suspect, awfully close to how McCandless saw himself.