DVD Review The director Sean Penn's portrayal of a young dreamer and wanderer is both picturesque and indulgent.
Into the Wild: An unlikely journey that ended in tragedy
Who among us hasn't fleetingly entertained the idea of chucking it all in and hitting the road, breaking away from the constraints of our lives in search of something more? In 1992, Christopher McCandless took this romantic and fanciful notion to extremes when, having just graduated from a prestigious university, he donated his trust fund to an anti-poverty charity, burnt the cash that remained in his wallet and without a word to his family, headed west across America and into the wild. His tragic story (he was found dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska), captured in fascinating, excruciating detail in Jon Krakauer's 1996 non-fiction best-seller, is retold here with a sure hand by the writer-director Sean Penn, who delivers a visually stunning if occasionally indulgent ode to rebellion and discovery.
McCandless (played with just the right amount of arrogance and wide-eyed wonder by Speed Racer's Emile Hirsch) at first seems more than a little daft. Why would a clever, privileged kid with the world at his feet choose to drop out so thoroughly, so drastically? Part of it has to do with his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), who are sketched here by Penn without an ounce of sympathy, and who we learn are responsible for a series of deceits that made McCandless's childhood "seem like fiction". But that's not the whole story. As his sister (Jena Malone) reveals in a voice-over, it is more than subversion, more than anger that is driving her brother. It's an almost primeval yearning for adventure. McCandless wants to live off the land in the lonely wilds of Alaska, which by any stretch seems like a foolish, reckless thing to do. But it's as though he doesn't have a choice.
The journey unfolds as McCandless, who reinvents himself as Alexander Supertramp, is holed up in the "magic bus" that would eventually claim him. He is thin but happy, a lousy hunter with his book of edible plants by his side. We then flash back to his university graduation and the beginning of his trek. And so it goes, back and forth, through the desert, down the Colorado River to Mexico and finally into the Alaskan mountains. These scenes, shot by the cinematographer Eric Gaultier, are so majestic as to blur McCandless's inner journey, threatening to turn the film into nothing more than a series of pretty pictures. Perhaps that's the point. In any case, they remind us why he is out there.
Whether you appreciate Into the Wild will probably depend on your feelings towards McCandless. Was he a narcissistic, spoiled dreamer who took Thoreau too much to heart and ultimately deserved his fate, or was he a brave wanderer whose devotion to his ideals made him something of a hero? Penn certainly believes the latter, and occasionally he gets carried away with it. There's a little too much idealising going on here. But his indulgence is tempered by a series of moving and funny encounters with a ragtag bunch of characters who become as much a part of McCandless's story as the river or the desert.
Catherine Keener and the first-time actor Brian Bierker are terrific as a pair of loveable "rubber tramps" (they have a vehicle, you see) roaming the land with their own demons in tow. And Vince Vaughn's charming, slightly shady grain harvester provides a welcome dose of mirth. But it's Hal Holbrook as a lonely old widower desperate for a family who provides some of the film's most memorable and poignant moments. The last time he and McCandless are together will break your heart, even if the traveller's final outcome doesn't.