The performances are superlative. Emile Hirsch carries the project on his back—he is in approximately 98% of the scenes—and his turn is that of a real actor’s actor, seemingly transforming into rather than portraying his character.
Chris is more frustrating than endearing, and yet he is someone that the viewer grows deep care and concern for through the course of the sprawling 147-minute running time. Hirsch’s physical transformation is equally startling, pulling a Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and sinking his weight to the point where he looks disturbingly gaunt and malnourished by the end.
Supporting work from Catherine Keener (2005’s “Capote”), as the motherly Jan; Marcia Gay Harden (2007’s “The Invisible”) and William Hurt (2007’s “Mr. Brooks”), as Chris’ flawed and grief-stricken parents; Jena Malone (2004’s “Saved!”), as sister Carine, and Kristen Stewart (2007’s “In the Land of Women”), as the flirtatious Tracy, is powerful.
Finally, longtime veteran character actor Hal Holbrook (2001’s “The Majestic”) is, at the age of 82, a revelation as the sprightly yet forlorn Ron. Holbrook’s every moment onscreen is astonishing, the depth with which he possesses from his eyes and infers through his voice no less than staggering.
The relationship between Ron and Chris is only a small part of “Into the Wild,” time-wise, but it is the one that most sticks with the viewer, emotionally captivating and resonant. If there is any justice, Holbrook will be a deserved Oscar nominee come early next year.
A heartrending slice of Americana both inspiring and foreboding in its view of a world that will exist long after we are all gone, “Into the Wild” would be a first-rate companion piece with both 2004’s Spanish-language “The Motorcycle Diaries” and 2005’s documentary “Grizzly Man.”
The former film and this one happen to share something else—cinematographer Eric Gautier—and he outdoes himself here, taking lavishly sublime advantage of outdoor locations in, among them, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, South Dakota, California, New Mexico and Arizona. The use of songs, many of them original tunes performed by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, effectively serve their purpose even though a more eclectic soundtrack would have allowed for a more expansive scope.
As writer-director Sean Penn turns the corner and moves down the home stretch, the film becomes disturbingly stark, the viewer unable to do anything but witness the final deterioration of a young man whose untimely fate is inextricably woven with his path toward pure happiness.
He does not find that level of contentment in time, but he does learn the crucial key to it, and that’s more than can be said for some people who live three or four times as long as Chris. “Into the Wild” is a great motion picture—haunting, difficult to take at times, and endlessly compelling.