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'Into the Wild' Movie Review

One of the Year's Best Films

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

By

Jena Malone and Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild

Jena Malone and Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild.

© Paramount Vantage
Mention Christopher McCandless to most Alaskans and, if they know his story, chances are they’ll express their displeasure with how ill-prepared he was and how he was not experienced enough to have attempted to live off the land in what he believed was an isolated area of Alaska. Writer/director Sean Penn brings McCandless’ story to the big screen for a wider audience to judge with Into the Wild, a detailed examination of McCandless’ last year wandering around America, living off the grid.

Penn worked closely with the McCandless family in adapting the book by Jon Krakauer into a feature film. The result is Penn’s best directorial effort and a movie which is totally engrossing, no matter what your opinion is of McCandless.

The Story

Based on true events, Into the Wild traces the meandering path taken by Emory University college graduate Christopher McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch), a thoughtful young man from an upper middle-class family who decided to donate his entire savings to charity. He then took off on an incredible journey of discovery, a journey which sparked heated debate after his untimely death.

Christopher wanted to be free of his dysfunctional home life and instead live life day-to-day, accountable to no one but himself. Working odd jobs and traveling by foot when not hitching rides, McCandless made his way across America. He met interesting characters as he gathered supplies and prepared his body physically for the ultimate adventure destination: Alaska. Everywhere he went people warned him against hitchhiking up to Alaska. To try and survive in that inhospitable climate without formal training or even a backup plan should things go wrong – which they did – was foolhardy. But McCandless had his mind made up and, as the facts bear out, there was no stopping him.

Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild

Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild.

© Paramount Vantage
His journey ended tragically, but along the way McCandless (who renamed himself Alexander Supertramp to further distance himself from his past) collected enough experiences to fill a set of books. He kayaked on the Colorado River and explored beautiful wilderness areas (which look absolutely stunning in the film). His vagabond lifestyle appeared to have suited his personality. It’s just too bad his story had to end much too soon.

The Cast

While so many actors his age have fallen victim to the ‘I’m a celebrity so therefore I’m above the law’ syndrome, Emile Hirsch has just gone about the business of creating a resumé loaded with incredible performances – mostly in independent films. Hirsch was excellent in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys and equally terrific in the little-seen The Mudge Boy as well as in Imaginary Heroes. Sure, he’s gone the studio route a couple of times – Alpha Dog being the most notable entry - but it’s really been within the independent film world that Hirsch delivers his best performances.

With Into the Wild, Hirsch kicked up his performance to an even higher level. Working with director Sean Penn brought out the best in Hirsch who dropped down to just 115 pounds in order to play McCandless at the end of his journey.

Funny guy Vince Vaughn shows up as the owner of a farm that hires on McCandless to harvest grain. This one’s more of a dramatic turn and Vaughn’s terrific in the part, as are Catherine Keener and Kristen Stewart who play fellow travelers living off the grid. But the real standout in the supporting cast is Hal Holbrook. The octogenarian delivers a heartbreaking performance as a lonely widower who enjoys Christopher’s company so much that he wants to adopt the young man to keep him from taking off for Alaska.

Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild

Emile Hirsch in Into the Wild.

© Paramount Vantage
The Bottom Line

Penn filmed Into the Wild on location and the scenery is simply breathtaking. Penn convinced Eddie Vedder to contribute to the score and Vedder’s music fits the film and the gorgeous landscapes perfectly.

After watching Into the Wild it’s not hard to understand why so many people have connected with McCandless’ story. McCandless’ journey is alternately heart-wrenching, frustrating, and inspiring, and Penn’s film does justice to McCandless’ tale.

GRADE: A-

Into the Wild was directed by Sean Penn and is rated R for language and some nudity.

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