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  Into the Wild

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart, Marcia Gay Harden

Directed by: Sean Penn

Produced by: Art Linson, William M. Pohlad, Sean Penn

Written by: Sean Penn

Distributor: Paramount Vantage


“I’ll paraphrase Thoreau here: Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness – give me truth.”

     So explains protagonist Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) early on in Sean Penn’s illuminating Into the Wild, legitimizing to another character the venture that he dubs as his “Great Alaskan Journey.” McCandless was a real young man who really did, after graduating from Emory University, travel to the wilderness near Fairbanks, Alaska to live off the land there for many months. Whether he did it in the romantic way that Penn shows the viewer is debatable—I hear that John Krakauer’s source-novel reads somewhat like a fictional take on reality—but this is insignificant to the film’s success on the whole. Into the Wild is more of a freeing experience than it is a biographical one, taking the very same cues from Thoreau and Jack Kerouac that once prompted McCandless to embark on his expedition. The movie is a resoundingly natural, ethereal portrait of the pureness and adventurousness of the follies of youth, admiring them just as much as it understands their grave consequences within the context of McCandless’ life.

     The film is a sprawling exercise in the post-modern style, and appreciably so. Penn takes on a rather ridiculous amount of material in a manner that is as inventive as it is flowing. The viewer first meets Christopher when he has already made it to Alaska, staking out his territory and discovering an abandoned public bus to make camp in. Hirsch, much more serious here than Tom Hanks was in the similarly-themed Cast Away, does not speak a word as this unfolds. Through his nuanced physical-acting and the onscreen presence of the words that his character has written in a letter to friend and past employer Wayne (Vince Vaughn, who is introduced later in the film), a tremendous amount about Christopher’s character is reveled in the opening sequence. This structure remains constant throughout the rest of the film; Christopher’s life in The Wild is revealed in between flashbacks that show how he came to reach said destination.

     As the viewer learns more about what Christopher voluntarily endured to get to Alaska due to his own hopeless sense of romanticism—and how much it changed him as a person, for better or for worse—the more they are affected by the building sense of climax that Penn achieves. The material strikes an emotional chord from the get-go, as it becomes clear that Christopher and his sister (Jena Malone, who narrates a solid portion of the film) were not properly cared for by their sourly prim middle-class parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, both of whom are fantastic here). One of the most telling moments involving Christopher’s family comes as they share a conversation at lunch after his graduation. Satisfied by their new ability to tout that their son has finished his undergraduate work at a well-regarded university and will likely soon be moving onto Harvard Law, Christopher’s parents offer to buy him a brand new car. At this thought, Christopher develops a bit of a twinkle in his eye, not because (as one might expect) the idea brings him happiness, but because it provides him a public way of showing his denouncement of material possessions. “Why would I want a new car?” he finally retorts, “The Datsun runs great.”

     And soon enough, as foreshadowed by the material set in Alaska, Christopher soon ventures Into the Wild, carrying the alias “Alexander Supertramp” at his side. Whether “the Wild” comes in the form of his ultimate destination or that of his journey to the destination is up to the individual viewer to decide. While waiting (primarily in California) until Spring to escape to the Alaskan Wilderness, Christopher meets a plethora of interesting people: namely Rainy (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Katherine Keener), two book-hording, RV-toting hippies; previously-mentioned Wayne (Vaughn), the owner of a wheat-farm who dabbles in an illegal business on the side; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a teenage girl who develops a deep-seeded crush on Christopher’s glamorous view of rugged individualism; and Ron (Hal Holbrook), an old military-veteran living in Salton City who works to develop himself as a father-figure for Christopher. Christopher is left uncannily touched by all of these individuals, so much so that the viewer’s emotional investment in his well-being (and notice of his foreshadowed downfall) creates the home that their presence in “normal life” will affect him enough to make him want to abandon his dangerous expedition. But that just wouldn’t be Christopher—the stubborn kid who would stop at nothing to feed his obsessions—would it? “You place too much value in human relationships,” Christopher tells Ron late in the film. In my view, this comment comes back to bite him when the film concludes.

     There is not a single performance that isn’t dead-on in Into the Wild, not a line of dialogue that isn’t in its place. This is that rare motion picture that feels as though it’s unfolding as one watches it, rather than merely taking up time. Every single one of its 148 minutes is well-earned. Is the film a masterpiece? After seeing it twice, I am close to being inclined to think so. While I have my gripes about a few of the more experimental techniques used by Penn—his choice to allow Hirsch to look directly at the audience on two separate occasions creates an iffy result at best—they seem inconsequential in retrospect. When I consider the life that Into the Wild allowed me to feel as I watched it, I come to realize that the film’s technical imperfections only work to further the flawed humanism that it wishes to convey in Christopher’s character. This is a wonderful, wonderful motion picture.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 10.16.2007

Screened on: 10.6.2007 (first viewing) and 10.10.2007 (second viewing) at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas in San Diego, CA.


Into the Wild is rated R and runs 140 minutes.

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