Based on Jon Krakauer's account of the life and death at 24 of the Emory University grad turned extreme outdoorsman Chris McCandless, Sean Penn's film does well by its youthful hero.
With one foot in the 1960s and another in our own cautious time, Into the Wild captures the recklessness, the passion and also the cruelty of youth. Chris (Emile Hirsch) barrels toward his life's journey from Atlanta to Alaska, but the rest of the world, older and wiser, seems to be limping back slowly from their travels carrying a suitcase loaded with loss and heartbreak.
Flashing back from Chris' last stand in an abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, Penn's film begins in a chaotic, mildly hallucinatory blur. As Chris graduates from Emory, the world seems to rush at him with teeth bared. On this precipice of adulthood, Chris sees nothing but ruin in the inevitable transformation of his idealism into the complacency of his parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden).
Smart enough for Harvard Law School, Chris instead opts out, driven by equal parts love and rage. His flight to remote Alaska reflects his all-consuming romance with nature. But his odyssey is also a prolonged and often cruel attack on the parents, whose dysfunctional marriage, shallow values and calculated deceptions fuel Chris' rage.
Shredding all forms of ID and burning his paper money, Chris sets off for his journey fueled by the moral introspection of Thoreau, London and Tolstoy. But as the journey continues, Chris' perception of what "the wild" can offer him shifts. The bliss of nature often pales in filmic terms to the satisfaction Penn shows of human companionship. On the road, Chris encounters a rich patchwork of Americans: dropouts and hippies, folk artists and vacationing Euros, a lonely retiree and a rowdy, life-embracing farmer played with infectious gusto by a chubby Vince Vaughn.
Carrying much of the film on his shoulders, Emile Hirsch is less an actor than an icon; charismatic and mesmerizing in the manner of young, handsome people who are burdened with embodying our hope for the future.
With the blind confidence of youth, Chris lectures the people he meets on the secrets to a happy, satisfied life – until the film's final moments, when he takes stock of all he has lost, too.
Those hippies – Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (an exceptionally good Brian Dierker) – traveling the country in a painted van take Chris under their wing, even if unable to swallow Chris' litany of complaints about his parents. "You look like a loved kid," Jan chides.
In one of the film's most affecting passages, Chris spends his last moments in civilization in the company of a retired Army vet (Hal Holbrook) who spends his days tooling leather and clocking his time until death. Most of the people Chris encounters seem to want to bottle him like a jar of jam they can put away and break out on the hard, lonely days of winter.
In many ways, Chris' travels are blessed. His burning passion is with nature, and it gives the film a state of rapture. He encounters benevolence and kindness, lucky breaks and straw hats by the side of the road.
In Penn's hands, Chris has an almost saintly dimension, down to his celibacy. Penn's portrait of Chris' parents can at times also slide from reality into archetype. Like the smothering, hypocritical adults in The Graduate, the McCandlesses are starched relics from some past generation's conception of parenthood. It is often hard to respond to them as real people instead of caricatures.
In many ways, Into the Wild seems not only aimed at but infused with the values of a college-aged audience, with Chris offered as a messianic hero for the times who rejects the world's false values for a higher moral purpose. But as the film advances, Chris' infectious enthusiasm and spirit of adventure begin to wane. Something pained and lonely creeps in as Penn flashes forward with increasing frequency to the remote school bus in the Alaskan wilds.
Into the Wild is in many ways a wonderfully sincere and nostalgic throwback to the exploratory spirit of the '60s. Employing split screens, cinema verité elements and folky, indie-rock ballads that recall Leonard Cohen of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Penn reveals an obvious debt to filmmakers such as Robert Altman and John Schlesinger.
Painful reminders of the film's theme of loss, many of the people whom Chris encounters pine for missing children. Chris is often embraced – even clung to – as an idealized substitute son. His insistence on continuing his journey amplifies their loss once again. A film about yearning and wounded human relationships, Into the Wild also offers a kind of ragged redemption for Chris. His epiphany comes too late, but it is all part of his journey; knowledge and life yield enlightenment and sorrow, too.