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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: Into the Wild

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It’s rare that a movie can change a hardened opinion and yet that’s exactly what Sean Penn has done with his sublime adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. When I originally read the book in 1997, my view of Christopher McCandless was essentially in-line with those—largely Alaskans--who considered him an ill-prepared, arrogant fool who died needlessly. The romance of his life and death was entirely lost on me.

But no longer. Penn’s film is so vast and remote, so idealistic and hopeful—such pure cinema--that I couldn’t help but be completely seduced up by it. Never has the itinerant life seemed so liberating, never has endless scrub brush and a ramshackle trailer park in the California desert looked so beautiful and welcoming (or Los Angeles so terrifying). Shooting in many of the original locations that McCandless actually visited, Penn has created a road movie for the ages.

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For those unfamiliar with the McCandless story, he was a young college graduate who essentially abandoned the comfortable trappings of a middle-class life to become a homeless tramp roaming across the western United States, personifying the spirit of John Muir or Henry David Thoreau. He kayaked through the rapids of the Colorado River with no training whatsoever, lived in the desert by himself for months at a time and ultimately hitchhiked to Alaska where he would eventually starve to death in the wilderness.

Emile Hirsch is McCandless and gives the first great performance of his career. Whether it’s the influence of the uncompromising Penn or simply the maturation of a young performer, Hirsch seems like a different actor in this movie. Gone is the adolescent bluster displayed in Alpha Dog and Lords of Dogtown. What remains is clear-eyed control and serenity. That he cut his weight down to a skeletal 115 pounds is testament to the utter commitment of his performance.

In supporting turns, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener,Hal Holbrook, Kristen Stewart and Brian Dierker all shine. Vaughn has never seemed particularly comfortable in his dramatic work, but here he disappears into—of all things—the role of a grain harvester from South Dakota. Keener, often so perfectly cold, is the warm, earthy maternal figure that McCandless never had while Holbrook is heartbreaking as a lonely, old retiree who befriends McCandless and ultimately comes to regard him as a son.

Penn spent ten years trying to convince the McCandless family that he was the man to bring their son’s story to the big screen. Thankfully, they finally agreed. With Into the Wild, Penn completely fulfills the promise hinted at in his earlier work. He has written a superb, difficult script; directed actors to marvelous performances and created a supremely ambitious film that is almost defiantly visual in the best tradition of Terrence Malick. I am happy to give it an unqualified rave and encourage everyone to check it out.

Photos courtesy of Paramount Vantage