Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless
Vince Vaughn as Wayne Westerberg
William Hurt as Walt McCandless
Marcia Gay Harden as Billie McCandless
Jena Malone as Carine McCandless
Catherine Keener as Jan Burres
Brian Dierker as Rainey
Zach Galifianakis as Kevin
Kristen Stewart as Tracy
Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz
Thure Lindhart as Thomas
Signe Egholm Olsen as Thomas' Girlfriend
In 1992, 23-year-old Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), disillusioned – for reasons that can ultimately only be guessed at – with modern life, walked into the Alaskan wilderness as the climax of a two year odyssey across America. He wasn't seen again until a pair of hunters came across him by accident a year later.
Crafting his film from Jon Krakauer's ("Into Thin Air") best-selling meditation on the men who answer the call of the wild, writer/director Sean Penn's ("The Crossing Guard") adaptation is heavy on mood and ambiance but sadly lacking in depth, giving up on the wider comparisons to focus fully on McCandless, who may not really be up to the scrutiny.
Giving away all his worldly goods and disappearing into the west directly after graduating Emory college, except for a few odds and ends like the copies of his favorite writers Tolstoy, Thoreau and (most importantly) Jack London, McCandless (re-christening himself 'Alexander Supertramp') is just as self-importantly pretentious as he sounds, and Emile Hirsch ("Lords of Dogtown") hits the nail solidly on the head. His McCandless is a bit of a twerp who rockets off other people's wisdom and thinks himself wise. He's got a monumental chip on his shoulder of somewhat undetermined origin – he's had an unhappy childhood that's he's extrapolated out to explain the vague problems of 'society' (the quotation marks are actually audible every time he says 'society') at large – and the confidence of youth that has convinced him he's got all the answers and everyone else is just deluding themselves, wasting their lives in mediocrity, which he seems to think is a synonym for hypocrisy. Hirsch is a talented young actor with a great deal of charisma, and he needs it all here.
The film cuts back and forth from his life in Alaska and his adventures on the road where he runs into all kinds of colorful characters, from Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker's world-weary hippies to Vince Vaughn's gregarious, life loving farmer, most of whom are more intrinsically interesting than McCandless, and it's mainly Hirsch's charm that makes that disparity largely invisible.
How well it all goes down depends on whether you commiserate with McCandless or find him hopelessly deluded. It's very, very difficult to identify with a stupid character without a good reason to and Penn is playing things very close to the vest, maybe too close. Everywhere he goes, characters try to point out the problems with the direction he's traveling in, but all the criticism just rolls off his back with a self-satisfied smile, while he explains everyone else's problems to them. Is Penn merely portraying McCandless as faithfully as possible, or does he truly believe in McCandless' goofy ideas about life? It's hard to say, particularly as there really is no context beyond McCandless himself for anything in the film, barring several overdone voiceovers – either from McCandless himself or the sister (Jena Malone) he left behind – that don't do much more than trumpet the 'truth' he has discovered. There's nothing inherently wrong in telling a story about an unlikable character, but it takes a certain kind of filmmaker to really make it work, and Penn doesn't seem like that guy.
On the other hand, "Into the Wild" is an absolutely beautiful movie to just watch, with some incredibly composed shots by cinematographer Eric Gautier. From river rapids to great wheat fields to the snowy wasteland of Alaska, it is simply stunning to look at from start to finish. It's almost tempting to suggest that the various problems can be forgiven in exchange for the vistas on display. Almost.
But I could be wrong – it could all be a repudiation of the kind of infantile attitude toward life that's on display most of the time. There's certainly enough evidence in the last third to suggest so, and with Penn being so intentionally vague, it invites the viewer to make up their own mind, and take their time doing it. Unfortunately, McCandless himself is so thoroughly annoying, I can't work up the energy to bother.