Sean Penn has molded one of the best movies of a bustling fall out of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into the Wild. Krakauer told the true story of Chris McCandless, an honors grad from Emory University who walked into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 to find himself outside the confines of estranged family, well-meaning friends and any governing impulse besides his own questing heart. If you read the book and pegged Chris as a wacko narcissist who died out of arrogance and stupidity, then Penn’s film version is not for you. If, like Penn, you mourn Chris’ tragedy and his judgment errors but also exult in his journey and its spirit of moral inquiry, then this beautiful, wrenching film will take a piece out of you.
Into the Wild represents Penn’s most assured and affecting work yet as director and screenwriter, in the wake of The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard and The Pledge. His connection to Chris is primal. Following Penn’s lead, Emile Hirsch (Lords of Dogtown) gets so far into Chris’ skin that they seem to share the same nerve endings. Over the film’s enveloping two hours and twenty-five minutes, Hirsch gives an award-caliber performance of astonishing depth and humanity. Penn was insistent about shooting the film on the same locations that Chris traveled over two years, after he burned his driver’s license and credit cards, gave away $24,000 in savings and set out to find his place in the world without a map. Penn uses narration from Chris’ beloved sister Carine (Jena Malone) to reveal why he cut himself off from his affluent Virginia parents, Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden). Dubbing himself Alexander Supertramp, Chris lets his wanderlust take him to a South Dakota farm run by Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), on a scary kayak trip down to Mexico, and to a trailer shared by “rubbertramps” Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker). An unconsummated romance with underage Tracy (Kristen Stewart) in Slab City, an RV camp in the California desert, also speaks to his character. Chris’ ache for connection is movingly portrayed in his relationship with widower Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook in his shining hour onscreen). And Penn makes the lack of that connection palpable when Chris heads to Alaska, enduring four months of isolation until his starved body (Hirsch lost forty pounds for the role) is found in an abandoned bus. Was it a death wish? Hardly. On a page torn from Taras Bulba, Chris wrote an SOS: “I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke.”
Penn, in tandem with the superb cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries), captures the majesty and terror of the wilderness in ways that make you catch your breath. And Eddie Vedder’s remarkable songs, notably a cover of “Hard Sun,” sound like the voice of Chris’ unconscious. Since his death, admirers have made the arduous trip to that bus. But Into the Wild celebrates the person, not the myth. Mistakes didn’t make Chris unique, his courage did. Through Penn’s unmissable and unforgettable film, that courage endures.