Christopher McCandless came from an affluent middle-class family (his father was an aerospace engineer for NASA), and when he graduated from Emory University in 1990 his parents had every expectation he would make something of himself. But Chris declined their gift of a new car, donated the remaining $24,000 from his college fund to Oxfam, and disappeared from their lives. He began hiking across the United States, stopping for a spell to work as a labourer in South Dakota, then kayaking down the Grand Canyon and into the Gulf of California. He called himself ‘Alexander Supertramp’ and took pride in travelling light, surviving on minimal provisions and his own prowess at foraging. All the while he dreamed of escaping civilisation to live off the land in Alaska. For more than 100 days he did just that. Then he made a grievous error…
Sean Penn’s three previous efforts as writer-director (The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge) have been intense, occasionally overcooked psycho-dramas, palpably sincere but a bit indigestible. His fourth is both more ambitious and more straightforward. Into The Wild scarcely has a plot worthy of the name; based on Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction bestseller, it’s a documentary-like account of a young man’s voyage of self-discovery. Penn begins and ends the movie with the abandoned “magic bus” that was Christopher’s shelter in the wilderness, but flashbacks and testimony drawn from his own journals and his sister’s reminiscences lay out the two-year trek to this pivotal time and place. It’s a chronicle of the road that evokes a whole range of associations, from Kerouac and Woody Guthrie to Easy Rider. For his part, the heaviest item in Christopher’s backpack was his library: Jack London, Tolstoy and Thoreau were his guides.
Penn obviously admires this young drop-out’s idealism and intrepid sense of adventure. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) captures ravishing, rhapsodic images of the great outdoors, while several original songs by Eddie Vedder supply a romantic uplift. If anything, it’s too energised – occasionally you want Penn just to stop and look, take in the scenery for a spell. A handful of sharply delineated encounters offer more nuanced perspectives on McCandless’ quest. Catherine Keener is especially fine as an aging hippie saddened to see something of her own estranged son in him (Christopher has “issues”). And veteran character actor Hal Holbrook works wonders as an octogenarian widower who establishes an unexpectedly deep bond with the boy before he sets off on the last leg of his expedition.
Save for a few indulgently Method-ical improvs, Hirsch also impresses, communicating the infectious exhilaration that drives Christopher ever further into the wide-open spaces and away from family and friends. If it’s a cautionary tale in the end, this timely movie is also a real eye-opener.
In his fourth and best film to date, Sean Penn has made an eco-road movie that refreshes and invigorates. Exquisitely shot, robustly acted and deeply felt, it's a potent ode to wanderlust and human pluck.