Journeys of self-discovery are often of no interest to anyone but the person on the journey. Much of what happens is internal and difficult for someone else to understand. But in 1996, writer Jon Krakauer chronicled just such a journey in one of the best non-fiction books of the decade, “Into the Wild.” Krakauer told the story of comfortably middle-class college graduate Christoper McCandless, who gave away his law school fund to charity, ditched his car, burned his cash and spent two years tramping around the American Southwest before heading to Alaska to have a last great adventure. In September 1992, nearly five months after disappearing into the Alaska wilderness alone and with limited gear, he was found dead at the age of 24 by hunters.
Sean Penn, here both adapter and director, puts together a sprawling, beautiful, long, sometimes annoying, but ultimately moving film that takes some of the best from Krakauer’s book and ignores everything it doesn’t really like. Emile Hirsch portrays Chris as one of those children of comfort who resents everything he has and wants to find something real and truthful. Raised by materialistic and narcissistic parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), Chris and his sister, Carnie (Jenna Malone, who doubles as primary narrator), play the dutiful children, but after fulfilling his last obligation and graduating from Emory University in 1990, Chris runs off without a word. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he lets the books of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Wild guide his life for the next two years.
Hirsch is tremendous in the role and plays Chris/Alex as a fun, smart, friendly guy who just doesn’t want to stick around too long. He crosses paths with an aging hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dieker), a South Dakota wheat harvester (Vince Vaughn), a smitten teenager (Kristen Stewart), and a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook); always slipping away whenever people start getting too close. Although his interaction with these people are the highlights of the movie (there are some welcome and unexpected laughs sprinkled throughout) and every cast member perfectly embodies their role, Chris’ reasons for continually moving on are not well developed. The film’s voice-over narration blames a dysfunctional upbringing, but that never quite explains his need to keep exploring, always alone.
This constant motion does allow Penn freedom to show off large portions of the copious natural beauty on Chris’ itinerary. Much of the movie is taken up with nature or travel montages to the tune of Eddie Vedder’s original songs. The effect is often stirring and at times jaw dropping, with strong comparisons to similar 1970s films that also took their action on the road. However it goes on a little long, dragging the story to a butt-numbing 140 minutes, rather than the 100 or so that would have been warranted without the repeating scenes of Hirsch in a backpack climbing rocks, hitchhiking, or standing places just looking around.
For all the good done by story, the performances, and the stunning scenery the movie is slightly weakened by a director who seems a little too much in love with his subject. The book is, at times, critical of some of Chris’ actions and the way he treats the people who obviously love and care for him. Many of his discussions with people come off as New Agey platitudes and his sense of the importance in what he was doing, as noted in his journal writings, is more elevated than would be warranted by someone who worked at Burger King for awhile and then went into the snow of Alaska without waterproof boots. Still, there is an emotional wallop in this movie and no matter how many faults Penn ignores, you can’t help be impacted by Chris’ ultimate fate.
Penn has taken a difficult story and made a top-notch road picture that doubles as a quest for personal fulfillment. Each person Chris comes across is touched in some way by his desire to be true to himself and to truth. That’s hard to convey and Penn should be congratulated for doing it without being condescending or self-righteous. You just might wish he’d gotten there a little quicker.