I found Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” to be a powerful and deeply affecting movie. Based on the book by Jon Krakauer, “Into the Wild” tells the true story of Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a young man from a well-to-do but highly dysfunctional family who, upon graduation from college, decided to go off on his own and “live off the land.” His travels took him across the country, through the Midwest, down to Arizona, into Mexico for a brief sojourn, back up through Southern California, and finally on to his final destination – both literally and figuratively – Alaska.
McCandless’ journey is presented as one of rebellion, but what lends the movie part of its power is that he doesn’t come across as particularly sympathetic. He’s likeable and earnest, and without question he had to live through some very difficult times – some of which are told in flashbacks, filling in the back story of his parents, who are played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt. But even with that, there are times when his motives seem suspect – as if he cares less about “the wild” than he does about hurting his parents. When the end is near, when he has finally achieved his ultimate goal only to find that it is about to kill him, I was left with the impression that he was finally learning – too late – the lessons that those he encountered on his journey were trying to teach him.
The role of McCandless would have been perfect for the young Sean Penn; alas, that person no longer exists. Hirsch is fine but not great, and in fact is outshone by nearly all of his co-stars. Hurt and Harden are wound tight as a drum as his parents; Vince Vaughan is totally believable in one of the first roles where I’ve seen him playing a character other than “Vince Vaughan;” Catherine Keener is terrific (as always) as one half of a hippie couple that interact with McCandless on two different occasions (Brian Dierker, the other half of the couple, is also quite good); and Hal Holbrook is simply heartbreaking as a man who has lived through much worse than McCandless and managed to come out the other side intact.
In their own ways, each of the characters described above realize that what McCandless is doing is foolish; that someday, given time and reflection, a healing can take place that has nothing to do with going into the wild. I may sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying something like this, but the thought processes that led McCandless on his journey were incomplete – they were immature. As Wayne Westerberg (Vaughan) says to him at one point, “you're a hell of a young guy, a hell of a young guy. But I promise you this. You're a young guy! Can't be juggling blood and fire all the time!”
Penn’s direction is solid; he allows the story to tell itself in its own time. The cinematography is wonderful, as is the score, consisting primarily of original songs written by Eddie Vedder. Overall, it’s well worth the investment of time (it’s a long movie, almost 2.5 hours long), and thought-provoking, and ultimately very, very sad.