Sean Penn’s uncompromising, unsettling, uniquely satisfying film version of Jon Krakauer’s best-seller, “Into the Wild,” tells the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a wealthy Eastern family who made an ill-fated trek into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992.
The movie is very much its own thing: A strange study of that impulse that, for generations, has made so many Americans want to leave civilization and push west — and a melancholy acknowledgement that, for most of these people, the journey offers little fulfillment.
It’s a celebration of the survivalist instinct and, at the same time, a warning of the dangers of idealizing nature — a scary, cautionary tale of just how perilous and unfeeling the world can be outside the network of human society.
With a little-known star (Emile Hirsch), a nearly three-hour running time and a downer story line, the film seems guaranteed for box-office oblivion, but it certainly strikes me as Hollywood’s most unforgettable and haunting film thus far in 2007.
The script, which Penn also wrote, picks up its hero’s story two years after he has disappeared from his family, changed his name, given away his money, hitchhiked around the country and, unprepared, is about to enter the Alaskan wilderness north of Mount McKinley.
From here, we follow his survival story as he takes up a Robinson Crusoe-like existence in an abandoned bus he stumbles upon for shelter. Flashbacks trace the story of his dysfunctional family life — most of it narrated by his younger sister (Jena Malone).
Flashbacks also trace the backpacking journey he began after college, during which he briefly bonded with a farmer in South Dakota (Vince Vaughn), a pair of snow-birding ex-hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and, most poignantly, an Army retiree who becomes his surrogate father (Hal Holbrook).
As the story proceeds on three levels, the magic of the movie is that it doesn’t try to understand or judge McCandless: He remains an enigma who can be seen as a pretentious rich kid on a lark, as a noble existential adventurer, or as a tormented, and apparently asexual, victim of a lethal family life. In a sense, he’s all three. But it’s the mystery of his selfishness that gives him real power as a character. His character shows just how impossible it is to neatly define or know another human being.
As in Krakauer’s book, the character’s odyssey toward doom becomes a symbol of man’s lonely fate in the cosmos and the contradictory fact that everything we do affects the people around us. Indeed, the film’s most gut-wrenching moments are those that measure the impact of the young man’s quest on his family and friends.
Hirsch looks uncannily like the real McCandless (whose final photograph we see at the end), and he effortlessly conveys every ounce of his intelligence, naivete, easy charm and self-destructive fascination for the wild that Krakauer so vividly described.
Penn’s direction is amazingly sharp and intuitive, full of masterful touches that give an epic dimension and scope to the parable. Scenes between McCandless and his various mentors are especially strong, and he gets performances from Vaughn, Keener and Holbrook that may be the best of their careers.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder supplied the songs for the soundtrack and I can’t think of a movie since “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in which a particular artist’s songs have been used so effectively to establish mood, convey character and help tell a dramatic story. If one of them doesn’t win the best-song Oscar, there’s no justice.