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Dustin Putman

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Into the Wild  (2007)
3 Stars
Directed by Sean Penn
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Hal Holbrook, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Jena Malone, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Zach Galifianakis, Kyle Kwon, Thure Lindhardt, Robin Mathews, Steven Wiig, Cheryl Francis Harrington
2007 – 147 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for language and some nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 20, 2007.
Now Playing in NY and LA; Additional Cities in the Coming Weeks.
There are times in probably every person's life when he or she fantasizes, if only for a moment, in leaving their everyday responsibilities and mundane routines behind and taking to the open road. For most of us, the idea is immediately shot down by a conscience that tells us how impractical it is, and thus, we are left to reserve vacations and special occasions for such experiences. For 22-year-old college graduate Christopher McCandless, he not only threw these concerns aside, but he donated away his $24,000 savings and burned the rest of his cash as a way of freeing himself from the materialistic norms of the rest of society. Call him irresponsible, call him crazy, but from 1990 to 1992, he made the choice to sever all ties with his family and live off the land of the earth, moving from place to place and having adventure after adventure up and down the U.S.'s west coast. His ultimate goal was to reach the wilds of Alaska, a destination that he did finally reach. The cost of fulfilling his dream, however, was much greater than he could have anticipated.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer and adapted for the screen by writer-director Sean Penn (2001's "The Pledge"), "Into the Wild" is a wise and harrowing drama, one part road picture and one part study in existentialism. The hero of the piece is, indeed, Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch (2007's "Alpha Dog") in a performance of breathtaking sincerity and openness. To follow Chris on his journey does not require that you agree with what he does, but only that you understand the reasons why. Sure, he is careless and even self-absorbed, not so much as letting worried parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and trusted younger sister Carine (Jena Malone) know where he is at after picking up and leaving his old self behind. Nevertheless, the core of his intention is easily relatable; Chris isn't interested in settling down, working a nine-to-five job, and basically obeying the societal expectations of conformity, yearning instead for the often unobtainable ideal that is total freedom.

Soaking up the gorgeous landscapes and beauty of nature set before him, Chris succeeds at doing what he planned to do all along. Unfortunately, he doesn't come upon the biggest truth of all—that nothing in life means anything without also allowing for shared human connection and compassion—until it is too late. This, above all else, is the central tragedy of McCandless' life and death, and it is a rumination that "Into the Wild" captures with unhurried, devastating clarity. Told through two narrations running simultaneously through the chronology-jumping narrative—that of Chris, via his writing and letters, and of sister Carine as she theorizes and waxes philosophic about her family's troubled past and the events that led up to her brother's intentional disappearance—the film is beautifully crafted by Sean Penn and fascinatingly thoughtful about its themes. There may be times when the writing of the voice-overs gets too heady for its own good, but it stops short of becoming pretentious because the things spoken are so nod-inducingly accurate.

The fellow souls Chris meets along his trek are candidly and economically handled, more than just walking types and obvious plot devices. A traveling hippie couple, Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker), are nursing hurtful wounds from their past, and it is through the details of their story that Chris turns out to be the savior both of them need. A bored, trailer-dwelling 16-year-old aspiring singer, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), falls for Chris and is then unprepared for when he must walk away from her. Blue-collar farm worker Wayne (Vince Vaughn) takes him under his wing when Chris is forced to get a job in order to continue his travels. And the elderly Ron (Hal Holbrook), a lonely widow whose wife and child died decades ago, reinvigorates his zest for life when he gives Chris a place to temporarily stay and finally finds the friend he has been in need of. That way that Chris abandons Ron with such aloofness after Ron bares his soul to him is symbolic of the error of Chris' ways. That he doesn't allow himself to get too close to anyone, or shrugs off those that he does, is his downfall.

The performances are superlative. Emile Hirsch carries the project on his back—he is in approximately 98% of the scenes—and his turn is that of a real actor's actor, seemingly transforming into rather than portraying his character. Chris is more frustrating than endearing, and yet he is someone that the viewer grows deep care and concern for through the course of the sprawling 147-minute running time. Hirsch's physical transformation is equally startling, pulling a Tom Hanks in "Cast Away" and sinking his weight to the point where he looks disturbingly gaunt and malnourished by the end.

Supporting work from Catherine Keener (2005's "Capote"), as the motherly Jan; Marcia Gay Harden (2007's "The Invisible") and William Hurt (2007's "Mr. Brooks"), as Chris' flawed and grief-stricken parents; Jena Malone (2004's "Saved!"), as sister Carine, and Kristen Stewart (2007's "In the Land of Women"), as the flirtatious Tracy, is powerful. Finally, longtime veteran character actor Hal Holbrook (2001's "The Majestic") is, at the age of 82, a revelation as the sprightly yet forlorn Ron. Holbrook's every moment onscreen is astonishing, the depth with which he possesses from his eyes and infers through his voice no less than staggering. The relationship between Ron and Chris is only a small part of "Into the Wild," time-wise, but it is the one that most sticks with the viewer, emotionally captivating and resonant. If there is any justice, Holbrook will be a deserved Oscar nominee come early next year.

A heartrending slice of Americana both inspiring and foreboding in its view of a world that will exist long after we are all gone, "Into the Wild" would be a first-rate companion piece with both 2004's Spanish-language "The Motorcycle Diaries" and 2005's documentary "Grizzly Man." The former film and this one happen to share something else—cinematographer Eric Gautier—and he outdoes himself here, taking lavishly sublime advantage of outdoor locations in, among them, Alaska, Oregon, Nevada, South Dakota, California, New Mexico and Arizona. The use of songs, many of them original tunes performed by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, effectively serve their purpose even though a more eclectic soundtrack would have allowed for a more expansive scope.

As writer-director Sean Penn turns the corner and moves down the home stretch, the film becomes disturbingly stark, the viewer unable to do anything but witness the final deterioration of a young man whose untimely fate is inextricably woven with his path toward pure happiness. He does not find that level of contentment in time, but he does learn the crucial key to it, and that's more than can be said for some people who live three or four times as long as Chris. "Into the Wild" is a great motion picture—haunting, difficult to take at times, and endlessly compelling.
© 2007 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman