(Below is my review, also posted at Folio Weekly)
Sean Penn's Into the Wild, like the Jon Krakauer nonfiction book on which it is based, is a film with a mutable text, so to speak: How the thing is "read" depends on one's stage in life.
If you're a teen or twentysomething, it's probably impossible to resist the appeal of Christopher Johnson McCandless (Emile Hirsch), the boyishly handsome kid who rejects, you know, a sick society in favor of taking an Easy Rider, On the Road-like journey across the real America. He eventually shucks street life in favor of getting back to nature and attempting to live off the fat of the land. Call it "Survivor: Alone and Extreme."
If you're in your 30s or older and/or – God forbid – a parent long resigned to real jobs, mortgages that hang like nooses and credit-card debt with a life of its own, then McCandless, AKA Alexander Supertramp, may strike you as a glorified spoiled brat, a slacker whose willful ignorance about the realities of survival in the Alaskan wilds amounts to a death wish. And let's face it: McCandless, something of a hero to his younger sister, Carine, heard in voiceover and played by Jena Malone, didn't get in touch with her or with his suffering parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, playing underdeveloped roles) even once during the two-year road trip leading to his starvation death, alone, in an abandoned Anchorage city bus out in the boonies.
So it's difficult to work up much sympathy for a guy as self-centered and narrowly focused as McCandless. All of which makes it difficult to care much about the protagonist of Into the Wild, an impressively photographed (partly by Penn), occasionally riveting successor to the filmmaker's 2001 drama The Pledge, another movie about a driven man who finds himself at loose ends.
The movie is told episodically, with something of a broken-frame narrative: It begins and ends with sequences from McCandless's ill-fated trek through Alaska's Denali National Park, and returns to that setting throughout its lengthy running time – 150 minutes. "Who I was before/I cannot recall," Eddie Vedder sings, over chiming, churning guitars near the start of the film. Moments later, a flashback takes us to an earlier scene: McCandless has just graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, and he tells his proud father that he's certain his grades are good enough to get into Harvard Law School. That idea goes up in flames when he cashes in his college fund – all $24,000 of it – and sends the dough to Oxfam. He simultaneously shucks his sibling, his parents and, soon enough, his car. Cue the postcard inscription floating across the screen, this movie's version of a title card: "My New Birth."
It's difficult not to notice and be annoyed by how hard Penn tries to mythologize the life of a guy who essentially went vastly unprepared into an unforgiving wilderness. But that doesn't mar the pleasure to be found in several wonder-of-nature sequences, including gorgeous Western vistas and a rip-roaring ride through white-water rapids in Colorado.
Hirsch is compelling, too, as a lost but utterly confident kid who engages the sympathies of a potpourri of intriguing characters, including South Dakota grain-elevator worker (Vince Vaughn, surprisingly low-key and solid), a pair of feuding-then-reuniting hippies (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker) and a lonely, spry octogenarian played magnificently by craggy-faced Hal Holbrook. "Son, what the hell are you running from?" the old man asks. Too bad McCandless didn't discover the answer to that question in time to save himself from himself.
Into the Wild has scored 73 ("generally favorable reviews") at Metacritic. Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times ) calls the film "spellbinding" and the Baltimore Sun's Michael Sragow lauds it as "a genuine odyssey: a journal to self-knowledge."
On the other end of the critical spectrum, The New Yorker's David Denby castigates Penn's movie as "entirely too visual, to the point of being cheaply lyrical," and the Chicago Reader's Andrea Gronvall complains that "a murky screenplay leaves most of the humans ciphers, save for Hal Holbrook in an exquisitely calibrated performance ..."
Gronvall is right, and I'm betting that Holbrook ends up with a supporting-actor Oscar nomination.