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Movie Review: Into the Wild

Into the Wild
Written and directed by Sean Penn based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Paramount Vantage

Sean Penn’s last turn at director came with the underseen The Pledge back in 2001.  Some movies you accept as the kind that will never reach a big audience, but Into the Wild deserves one, because it’s about an extraordinary life filled with top-notch performances.  Penn’s never been the kind of guy to seek out awards, and I don’t imagine that will change with this film, but if awards consideration is the needed ingredient to get people to watch this, I hope Penn and his cast campaign vigorously.  I’m glad this movie is getting the limited release before shipping out everywhere, because some word-of-mouth can’t hurt.

Into the Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who, after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, took his yellow Datsun cross-country, burned all of his money and identification, and dreamed of one day living in the wild of Alaska.  But first, he has a grand adventure in the West itself, losing the car, hitching, finding temporary communities and meeting people along the way who would forever be touched by his presence.  All of this without telling his family (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play the parents, Jena Malone his sister).

The principal friends he makes are Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), who gives Chris a job in South Dakota, Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) and her boyfriend Rainey (Brian Dierker, who has never acted in anything and is memorable), the girl who loved him, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), and old-timer Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), all leading to his fateful trip to Alaska.  They all love him, but his idea of freedom is to be unencumbered by any kind of relationship; he is going to Alaska and that is that, despite even what he may feel about them.

Not only is there drama in the survival, but in the relationships as well.  The entire cast is on target.  You won’t soon forget Holbrook, Keener, Dierker, or Stewart, and the full-on method performance by Emile Hirsch, an actor who has sort of slinked in the shadows for awhile, much like Ryan Gosling did, and should be ready to be an A-list star soon.

Told in a similar mode of director Terrence Malick, with the same kind of themes of Lost in Translation, the movie is methodical and dreamlike much of the time, but never not entertaining.  Of course, should you find yourself already yawning at the aspect of a movie that takes its time like that, maybe this isn’t for you.  However, you’ll be missing an incredible adventure.

McCandless makes a couple of mistakes in his trip to Alaska that Krakauer masterfully explains in the book; I’m not sure they are translated well here on the screen: it might have required some sort of intrusive explanation in which Penn didn’t want to interrupt the film.  That’s only a minor quibble, though, if even a quibble.  It’s one of the best films of the year so far. 

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