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Into the Wild

Near Flawless Filmmaking

In 1990, Christopher McCandless, the son of a successful aerospace designer, gave away his life savings of $24,000 and, over the next two years, hitchhiked across America; he planned on getting to Alaska, where he hoped to live in the wilderness. McCandless' aim was to discover himself by discovering the country. Four years later, Jon Krakauer (Under the Banner of Heaven, Into Thin Air) wrote a 9,000-word article (later expanded into non-fiction bestseller Into the Wild) for Outside magazine on this undertaking.

After reading Krakauer's book, actor/filmmaker Sean Penn (The Pledge, The Crossing Guard, The Indian Runner), captivated by McCandless' tragic/romantic story, purchased the film rights. Was McCandless a tragic hero on a uniquely American journey or a naïve idealist unprepared for the harsh realities of surviving alone in the Alaskan wilderness? The viewer will have to decide.

Newly graduated from Emory University with honors, Chris’ (Emile Hirsch) parents, Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) have his future planned out for him: graduate school, possibly law school, followed by a lucrative professional career, a home in an affluent suburban community, marriage and, of course, children. Influenced by the works of Jack London, Leo Tolstoy and Henry David Thoreau, Chris sees an empty, inauthentic life.

Outside of his younger sister, Carine (Jena Malone), Chris doesn’t leave much behind when he gives away his savings and heads for the open road in an old beater. At first, his parents presume that Chris has returned to Atlanta to resume his post-collegiate life. It’s not until the end of summer that Walt and Billie discover that Chris has disappeared, leaving little evidence of why he's left his life behind or what he intends to do with himself.

On the road, Chris gives himself a new name, “Alexander Supertramp", and turns to hitchhiking after losing his car in a flash flood in Arizona. Chris’ wanderings take him through long periods of self-imposed isolation to living and working in small, rural towns. In South Dakota, Chris works at a grain elevator and befriends Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), the owner of a combine business. In California, he meets a hippie couple, Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan Burres (Catherine Keener), and later develops a tentative relationship with Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a teenage girl who lives in a commune. He also canoes to the Gulf of California. Before heading to Alaska, Chris spends time with an elderly man, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), who lives in the California desert. But Chris' “grand Alaskan adventure” keeps calling to him.

An Academy Award-winning actor for Mystic River, Sean Penn has also written and directed several well-received films, but none of his previous efforts displayed the eye for visual composition, pacing, or technique Penn shows here. Penn effortlessly mixes flashbacks, flash-forwards, slow motion, and superimposed text taken from Chris’ writings. What results is an intensely visual, intensely lyrical filmmaking style that’s all the more remarkable for coming from an actor-turned-director. Generally, actors turned directors stick to what they know best -- directing other actors -- and rely on routine filmmaking techniques to tell their story visually. Penn doesn’t.

Visual style alone, however, wouldn’t be enough to make Into the Wild watchable. Penn smartly chose a lead actor, Emile Hirsch, perfect for the role of McCandless. In a handful of mostly mainstream roles, Hirsch has proven himself a likable, if not necessarily deep, actor, but in Into the Wild Hirsch digs deeper, giving a raw, authentic performance that’s note-perfect from the first scene through the final, heartbreaking epiphany.

Of course it helps that Penn cast highly skilled, experienced actors, none better than Catherine Keener as a world-weary dropout and Hal Holbrook as a lonely old man deeply touched by the brief time he spends with the idealistic, if tragically misguided, McCandless. There is one minus in all this however: Eddie Vedder's over-emphatic, bombastic contributions to the soundtrack. Come awards season, Into the Wild will probably receive a slew of nominations, all of them well deserved.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


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