Written and Directed by: Sean Penn (based upon the novel by Jon Krakauer)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn
Rated: R for language and some nudity.
Parental Notes: There isn’t much in the way of violent content, aside from some footage of hunting. Scenes depicting the slaughter and cooking of wild animals might upset children, however, and there are shots of the meat being consumed by maggots that are far from pleasant. There’s a bit of non-sexual nudity, as well.
In 1990, Chris McCandless walked away from his law school trust fund and his family, and he headed into the wild. Two years later, hunters found his body in the bus he’d been using to camp in Alaska’s Denali National Park. “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s book about McCandless’ life, has been adapted by Sean Penn into a beautiful, thoughtful movie that narrowly escapes pretentiousness and rekindles the debate about McCandless: was he wise beyond his years, a brave adventurer leaving our toxic civilization behind to live off the land? Or was he a fool who committed suicide by ignorance?
The film “Into the Wild” begins as Chris (Emile Hirsch, “Alpha Dog”) is graduating Emory University and tracks his cross-country odyssey before heading up on his fateful trip to Alaska. Hirsch plays Chris as a charismatic, idealistic young man, an early twenties misfit determined to escape society as much as he can. The portrayal works, and it’s hard not to take as strong a liking to the passionate young man as the folks whose paths he crosses do.
There’s Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener, “Friends With Money”), a couple of older hippies whose relationship is on the rocks until Chris helps them sort it out. There’s Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, “Shade”), a retired leather worker whom Chris shakes out of his closed-up life. There’s Wayne (Vince Vaughn, “The Break-Up”), a genial grain elevator owner who employs Chris for a little while. Everyone who meets Chris seems to love him, and they’re all sad to see him go.
Chris uses the name “Alexander Supertramp” while on his peregrinations, and takes pains to keep out of touch with his family. He manages to leave so bare a trail that even the private investigator they hire to find him loses the track partway across the country. The strain of his disappearance takes a toll on his parents (William Hurt, “The Good Shepherd,” and Marcia Gay Harden, “The Dead Girl”). His sister Carine (Jena Malone, “Lying”) is more content, knowing that he is doing what he must to make himself happy.
Penn shoots much of the film is glorious wide angles, bringing us a sense of what Chris must have seen as he trekked across this vast nation. There are wide open skies, often marked by jet trails, and tall mountains begging to be climbed. All this brings a romantic feel to the film, in spite of McCandless’ inglorious end.
“Into the Wild” is a film as uncompromising as its subject. Chris’ final weeks are shown in stark detail — his difficulties finding food and his inability to ford the river between his camp and civilization bring him to a more and more skeletal condition. Ironically, had he brought a topographical map with him, he would have known there was a hand-cranked basket available a few miles up the river which he could have used to ford the water. Of course, had he known it was there, his obsession with subsistence living would likely have pushed him further away from his camp location so that it would not have been an option.
It is to be hoped that this film will serve as a cautionary tale as well as an inspirational one; Alaskan rangers tell stories of young men like McCandless, driven by dreams and idealism to vanish into the cold, brutal wilderness. While “Into the Wild” likely will not deter these young folk from their course, one might hope that McCandless’ end will give them ideas for coming back out alive.