Romanticization takes precedence over analysis in Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s exasperating adaptation of John Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller about Chris McCandless, a middle-class kid who graduated from Emory in 1990 and promptly went off the reservation, finally dying from starvation in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. Pieced together from journals, interviews, police reports, and anecdotes, Krakauer’s novel held McCandless in esteem but not with the rose-tinted glasses through which Penn views him, as the director casts his protagonist as a veritable Christ figure to be not only revered but envied. McCandless’s decision to reject his unhappily married parents’ Cadillac materialism—which involved burning his cash and IDs, donating his life savings to Oxfam, and hitchhiking to Alaska—was, in his own eyes, a rebellion against an empty society which he had to flee before, like flies on meat, it forever spoiled him. Penn buys this self-made conception of McCandless, envisioning him as a classical ‘60s nomadic free spirit: kindhearted, pure in intent, and hungry for all the wondrous, dangerous opportunities the world offers. In quick glimpses of the president justifying 1991’s Gulf War on television, Penn makes explicit his identification with McCandless, a man bold enough to wholly reject a Bushie society in favor of a more harmonious, pure state of being.
Dreamy as that notion might be, however, Into the Wild isn’t a completely convincing lionization. Penn utilizes a variety of multimedia means—handwriting across the screen, narration from McCandless’s travel logs and from his loyal sister Carine (Jena Malone), twilight panoramas of the vast countryside, flashbacks and (phony) home-movie footage—and yet McCandless remains something of a cipher, a man primarily glimpsed through his own written thoughts as well as the recollections of loved ones. These sources, alas, prove insufficient, since McCandless’s ruminations on “ultimate freedom” and wanting to “kill the false being within” are so self-aggrandizing that he comes off less a quixotic truth-seeker than someone wielding derivative ideals to mask a more obvious, immature adolescent revolt against his mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and father (William Hurt). Whether such a revolt is justified remains unanswered, since—despite a gracious shot of a forlorn Mr. McCandless grieving his lost son—Penn’s sketchy depiction of the boy’s parents never effectively confronts or complicates McCandless’s memories of his tumultuous home life. Far too heavily, Into the Wild simply buys what McCandless was selling, but even more than that, it augments what he was selling, while cursorily addressing (or outright sidestepping) any aspects of the tale that might be at odds with the young man’s carefully constructed, pseudonym-ed self-image as “Alexander Supertramp,” late 20th-century Jack London-by-way-of-Kerouac.
Attempting to craft a three-dimensional portrait from a pastiche of information, an impressive Hirsch, in focused method acting-mode (right down to his emaciated third-act torso), captures his character’s intense conviction and charismatic confidence. Yet throughout his episodic journey—in which he meets various surrogate family members, including a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a 16-year-old singer-songwriter (Kirsten Stewart), and an elderly widower (Hal Holbrook)—McCandless’s talk of rejecting modern life and embracing solitary communion with the environment sounds so unoriginal and borderline-preachy that it’s tough to comprehend the seemingly profound effect he has on others. Better are the sequences in which McCandless is alone in the wilderness and, specifically, in the “magic bus” that eventually became both his home and his sarcophagus. In these moments, Penn conveys a powerful sense of wanderlust and yearning for spiritual affiliation with the natural world, with Eric Gautier’s probing, searching camera in harmony with its subject, and the image of McCandless hauling his kayak over a mountain subtly linking him to one of Werner Herzog’s legendary adventurers, Fitzcarraldo.
Mythologizing McCandless might be a somewhat questionable aim, but at least initially, Penn and editor Jay Cassidy’s graceful segueing between McCandless’s magic bus period and his preceding exploits (split up into chapters labeled by stages of life) lyrically expresses the internal and external forces compelling his fateful expedition onward. By its midway point, however, the director’s aesthetic expressionism becomes something of a nuisance, with poetic slow motion, sunset silhouettes, indulgent semi-improvisatory ramblings by McCandless, and Eddie Vedder tunes contributing to a feeling that Penn is trying too hard, and too insistently, to articulate the ineffable. At its finest, such as with McCandless’s unlikely conversation with an old man in the desert, or his chance encounter with a Danish couple (he hyper-garrulous, she topless) on the banks of a heavily policed river, the film catches a strong whiff of McCandless’s experiential openness, of his desire for something more than gold watches and a preordained set of suburban responsibilities. Into the Wild‘s escalating employment of mannered affectations, however, ultimately becomes a burdensome drag from which, like the itinerant path taken by McCandless himself, there’s no triumphant return.