October 21, 2007 -- “Into the Wild” is a dramatization of the brief life of a young man, Christopher McCandless, (played in the film by Emile Hirsch of “Lords of Dogtown”) who engaged in high-risk adventures that eventually resulted in his death. This movie like the Jon Krakauer book it was based upon is a highly romantic version of that simple fact. McCandless' death by starvation in Alaska has been so romanticized that people have been known to journey to the same spot where he died in order to experience what McCandless experienced, not necessarily the death and starvation part of it, but that could happen, too. Enough of these nuts have come to Alaska that the locals are thinking of moving the bus that served as McCandless' coffin to another location to discourage imitators.
To its credit, this film directed by Sean Penn (“The Pledge”) does not hold McCandless up as some kind of hero who should be copied. He is portrayed as a troubled, deeply wounded young man who undertook these high risk adventures in order to heal himself. I think a lot of people, myself included, feel there is a kind of healing power in the wilderness experience. The movie advances that theory and even indicates that McCandless was healed by his great Alaskan adventure in remote wilderness, but got trapped there and was unable to get out before his brief life ended. Like Thoreau before him, McCandless wanted to confront the essentials of life in the wilderness. Most of all he wanted to feel alive on an elemental, primitive level. The movie argues he achieved those goals. McCandless' story also taps into another powerful human need that is not being met by modern society: a way to find meaning outside of work and corporate identity -- a need to strike out on one's own and meet people outside of normal societal structures.
McCandless came from an upper middle class background. His parents had mapped out his life for him, but he rejected all that, in part for reasons revealed in the movie having to do with a shocking betrayal by his parents. This betrayal gave McCandless an exaggerated sense of the corruption of society. It was also the main reason that McCandless sought out the wilderness. In an earlier age, he might have become a mountain man, or a hermit. McCandless' story is told in a series of flashbacks highlighting his journey to the wilds of Alaska. This particular story structure does not serve the film well, however. The flashbacks tell how McCandless was befriended by an employer, Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn of “The Wedding Crashers”), by a couple of hippies, Jan Burres (Catherine Keener of “Capote”) and her partner Rainey (Brian Dierker, who is also the coordinator for the kayak stunts) and by an older man, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook of “The Majestic”) who sees McCandless as the son he wished he had. All of these people seem to want something from McCandless. Another person close to McCandless is his sister, Carine (Jena Malone of “Pride and Prejudice”). Kristen Stewart (“Zathura”) plays Tracy, the hottest jailbait I've seen in years.
The movie has two strong suits. The first is the acting, which is superb by everyone, especially Emile Hirsch, who is a real revelation here. His scenes with Hal Holbrook are especially touching. Catherine Keener, who has been on a real professional roll the past few years, turns in another Oscar-worthy performance here. William Hurt of “The Good Shepherd” turns in a great performance as Christopher McCandless' father, Walt, and Marcia Gay Harden of “The Hoax” is also excellent as McCandless' mother, Billie. Don't be surprised if this film generates multiple Oscar nominations in the acting categories. The movie's other strong suit is location photography. This film is shot in the actual locations where McCandless traveled and the scenery is spectacular. In an age when most films set in the United States are shot in other countries (including China), it is refreshing to see all those great U.S. locations on film. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (“Paris, je t'aime”) captures some gorgeous scenery in this film. He also captures a romantic vision of nature as well as the stark, impersonal horror of a more realistic vision of nature. This film rates a B.
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