The sparse, quiet whiteness of the Alaskan wilderness comes into focus as Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, crushes the snow with his slow tracks and Eddie Vedder’s guttural vibrato builds in the background. From its opening credits, Into the Wild strikes a beautiful, somber tone with such moments and sustains it until the end. The Sean Penn-directed adaptation of the popular Jon Krakauer book links these introspective moments along McCandless’s journey to seamlessly piece together his story of rebellion, freedom, and discovery.
The film cuts from the lone figure striking out on the rugged terrain to a flashback of a college graduation in which McCandless is barely distinguishable from his fellow classmates clad in caps and gowns. What he perceives as the lack of identity, the pointlessness of materialism, and the trap of a dysfunctional family drive McCandless to donate his $25,000 savings to charity, slice his credit cards, and drop off the grid. “No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes,” he quips to himself. While traveling west, venturing down to Mexico via river, then back up toward Alaska, McCandless meets several other characters drifting on the fringes of society played by Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, and Vince Vaughn, among others.
Hirsch embodies an endearing, genuine McCandless — a deep-thinking bookworm with a refreshing interest in the smallest details of the people he meets. One scene has McCandless pondering a call home only to lend his last quarter to an old man pleading with an angry lover on the other end of a pay-phone ready to cut out. Such is the nature of McCandless’s impact on those he met — brief, uncomplicated, and exactly as much as needed to make a lasting difference.
Penn’s no-frills, unforced directorial style lends itself to Hirsch’s low-key charisma as he becomes as interested in the little, seemingly ordinary details as McCandless himself is. His camera lens turns fish-eyed and frantic when McCandless lacks focus — lost in the hubbub of Los Angeles or reeling from poisoned berries in an abandoned bus, for example — a style naturally and remarkably intuitive of the character. Then there’s that music, Vedder without his band, stripped-down and at his best, weaving in and out of the film in complimentary ways reminiscent of Aimee Mann’s contribution to Magnolia.
McCandless learns his last lesson as a solitary figure hobbling after small game and clawing his way out of river rapids, far from his collection of fringe friends. It turns out to be one only viewers can glean from, and it’s Penn’s gorgeously somber approach that aids viewers in tipping an ear to listen. •
Into the Wild
Dir. Sean Penn, writ. Penn, Jon Krakauer (novel); feat. Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener (R)