One day, you just pack up your essentials in a backpack, do away with all forms of identification, and set off on the road to find that piece of blue sky thatís been missing from your puzzle. Such is the task taken on by young Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch
) when he set out in the summer of 1990 hoping to reach the blustery ether of Alaska. Abandoning a life of charm, money, and an equally rebellious sister (Jena Malone), McCandless walked, hitched, and explored America for two years before he died from starvation and partial poisoning on the outskirts of Denali National Park in Alaska.
Four years later, Outside magazine contributor Jon Krakauer documented McCandless' travels in his debut novel Into the Wild, which serves as a blueprint for Sean Penn
's adaptation of McCandless' life. Look at me cross-eyed all you want but this tale of "a rebellious 1990s Thoreau" (as the press notes ponder he might be) brings out a buoyancy in director and terminal humbug Penn that's been absent in his filmography thus far. One might think Penn would be more apt to adapt Krakauer's recent Under the Banner of Heaven instead, but his direction in Wild is astute and brisk though not always as concise as one would hope. Article continues below
Penn finds his abandoned doppelganger in McCandless, bringing out a lighter hue in his shadowed cheeks; the ever-luring act of losing one's self seems to be a deeply held love for Penn, the rabid anti-celebrity. It carries through with Hirsch finding the best use of his wanton boyishness to date. The rest of the cast plays like his engulfing shadow: Juicy bit parts from Catherine Keener
, Brian Dierker, and Hal Holbrook weather equally with a shockingly ineffective Vince Vaughn
and a wasted Marcia Gay Harden
An effective adventure through and through, Wild's biggest wound comes from Penn's meandering script that saddles the film with Malone's dazed voiceovers and a narrative that could survive a shortening of thirty minutes or so. Penn often attempts to worship McCandless' shedding of the capitalist skin; a Kerouac who forked the wrong way. But the moments that hit hardest are moments when McCandless, who went by the name Alexander Supertramp during his travels, becomes a paradigm of the way nature erodes the psyche. Mumbling passages by Tolstoy and Pasternak alone in an abandoned bus in the echoing terrain, it's here where McCandless' self becomes most troubled and where the film feels most effective.
Shot with a luminous lens by Eric Gautier (Kings & Queen), Penn's hero often takes the guise of a roadside Jesus; bringing love to troubled couples, warmth to lonely old men and abstaining from sex with a young vixen (Kristen Stewart
) in lieu of enlightenment. McCandless might have been this prophetic good man in the woods, but he was also a blue-ribbon loon with parental issues. Immersed in hippie drivel and online cults, McCandless' complexity is never fully divulged in Penn's narrative, which is both an advantage and a hindrance. On the plus, it keeps the film jumpy and kinetic. On the negative, we'll probably never understand McCandless; maybe we weren't supposed to.