Roughing it 

A review of Into The Wild (R)

click to enlarge Real, or real stupid? Emile Hirsch (above) and Sean Penn - avoid getting into the common Chris McCandless debate.
  • Real, or real stupid? Emile Hirsch (above) and Sean Penn avoid getting into the common Chris McCandless debate.

*Into The Wild (R)

Kimball's Twin Peak, Tinseltown
With Into the Wild, Sean Penn thoroughly and satisfyingly retells the tale of Christopher McCandless' wilderness journeys, which author Jon Krakauer first eloquently brought to light in his 1996 best-selling book.

It's a story that begins with Chris' fact-finding mission of his family's history. Along this journey, Chris hears from past family friends about how his aerospace engineer father Walt McCandless (William Hurt) had kept up relations with his first wife, Marcia, even after taking up with Chris' mother, Billie (Marcia Gay Harden). Walt secretly split his time between the two women long enough to sire a son from Marcia, two years after Chris was born. This dark revelation instilled a silent burning rage in Chris that would reveal itself in his newfound passive resistance to his father.

Then, after graduating in 1990 with a double major in history and anthropology from Emory University, Chris continues his soul-searching journey, first by giving away his life savings of $24,000 to a charity against hunger. Soon after, he burned his cash and abandoned his old yellow Datsun in an act of societal defiance that would soon lead him through Nevada, South Dakota, Oregon, California, Mexico, Arizona, Washington and Alaska over the next 2 years.

In Alaska, where Chris spent his final 113 days, he came across the abandoned shell of a 1940s International Harvester bus where he would take up camp and live off the fat of the land by eating squirrel, porcupine, birds and a moose. But, in this time, Chris also makes a fatal error by eating the toxic seeds of wild potato roots. And though he perished in his sleeping bag within the shelter of the bus, it was here where Chris finally found the solitary primal existence he had set out in search of.

For a story so fraught with potential landmines, Penn, who also wrote the film's script, ably bridges delicate narrative constraints to fulfill expectations of audiences familiar with Krakauer's book. He keeps with Krakauer's refusal to paint Chris as either a visionary or an idiot something that some readers of the book have been tempted to do.

Instead, what we see is a person who pushed himself to the edge at every opportunity and compressed a lifetime's worth of experience into a very narrow margin of time. Penn's decision to film at many of the exact locations that Chris traversed also colors the story with an indisputable sense of authenticity.

Emile Hirsch (Alpha Dog) who takes on the role of Chris, deserves some credit. He well personifies the fiercely idealistic and self-absorbed young man who severed ties with his upper middle-class family in search of personal truths. He's joined by a capable supporting cast Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook, Brian Dierker and Kristen Stewart contributing memorable performances as people won over by Chris' ineffable charms.

Inevitably, though, Chris' story will divide people. On the surface, it seems like the tale of yet another young, unprepared adventurer with a thinly veiled suicidal fantasy. But it is fraught with uncomfortable questions regarding the sins of the father, ambition, conformity, capitalism and freedom.

At the very least, Penn's film portrays Chris McCandless as he was: a young man with a burning desire to simplify his existence.


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