Into the Wild (2007): Sean Penn’s Tale of Adventures of Christopher McCandless, Starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, and William Hurt

Whether or not you like Sean Penn’s work as a director (and I’m mixed about it), you’ve got to admit that he’s an original filmmaker who, unlike most of his contemporary cohorts, doesn’t repeat himself thematically or stylistically and that he is not afraid of choosing tough, challenging texts, like his new film.

“Into the Wild,” which plays all the fall film festivals, including Telluride, Venice, and Toronto, is Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s 1996 popular tome of the same title, an account of the adventures of Christopher McCandless, an upscale college graduate whose quest for freedom terminated in death of apparent starvation in Alaska.

Ambitious and faithful to the much admired source material, Penn’s fourth picture likely will divide critics and audience when it bows theatrically by the entrepreneurial Paramount Vintage September 21.

Penn has expressed his admiration for the book’s rebellious anti-hero, and his careful screen adaptation shows that. Yet like all of Penn’s features, “Into the Wild” is ultimately flawed, way overlong, indulgent, and a bit pretentious. While younger viewers should like the movie, older, more critical ones might be disappointed due to the above shortcomings.

That said, “Into the Wild” feels like a personal film for which Penn must have felt strong emotional affinity. As played by the gifted Emile Hirsch, the protagonist is the kind of role that Penn himself might have essayed twenty years ago.

Penn treats this thrilling and horrific saga as a prototypical celebration of youth wanderlust, a ritualistic rite of passage motivated by the need to explore new realities as well as the urge to reject old and familiar ones. To his credit, Penn doesn’t try to explain Christopher, other than delineating some basic traits, such as his high intelligence, both romantic and intellectual alertness, self-righteousness when it comes to basic beliefs and values, and a generational rebellion against his bourgeois parents (played by the good Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt).

The tale begins with Christopher graduating from Emory University circa 1990. At 22, like many members of his generation, the nave West Virginian felt eagerness to leave his prosperous background and embark on a peculiar odyssey, without sharing his plans with his old folks or even his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), with whom he was close.

Alarmed and shocked by his disappearance, the McCandless soon realized that their son had given away his educational fund for law school) to charity. Months later, Christopher’s vehicle was found deserted in Arizona desert. Acting like responsible guardians, the McCandlesses made the missing case public and even hired a detective.

Needless to say, Christopher made everything possible not to be found by his parents and the authorities. In an effort to conceal his real identity, he chose another name for himself, Alexander Supertramp, and kept moving on.
How did he survive By living off the land and picking minor jobs here and there. The real nutrition for his imagination and soul came from reading or revisiting the work of estimable writers like Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London (a peculiar mix, which, if memory serves, is not really explained or discussed in the film).

All along, Christopher’s desire was to establish a totally new, free, and isolated existence, sort of a modern hippie in the early 1990s. Living in Yukon his great romantic Alaskan adventure was exciting for a while until it ended tragically in 1992.

In the press notes, Penn claims that while adapting the book, “it was important that McCandless not seem to be just this snotty little kid with a chip on his shoulder,” and yet, in moments, either as a result of not entirely clear or precise conception, that’s how the lead comes across

Penn’s narrative, like the book, is by necessity episodic, switching from Christopher’s life in the Alaskan wilderness to flashbacks of his adolescent and school years. He was not entirely solitary, and we get to meet some of the encounters and brief friendships he made while traveling.

On the road, Christopher meets a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), and a hard-drinking South Dakota farmer (Vince Vaughn). Later on, he meets a young hippie girl (Kristen Stewart) living in a commune, and a retired Army man and widower (Hal Holbrook). Due to his charisma and perceived vulnerability, many of the mature characters take parental interest in him, trying to understand and protect him. This is particularly the case of Holbrook who comes to perceive Christopher as a grandson.

Not everything goes smoothly or excitingly and there are tough times to be had, such as poverty in Los Angeles, or removal from a freight train. But the road leads to Alaska, where Christopher’s survival skills are tested and finally defeated.

Krakauer’s best-selling biography of McCandless benefited from its multi-layered, multi-voiced perspective. Penn uses Carine’s voiceover narration, or excerpts from Christopher’s journals, onscreen text and section titles like in a book.

At two hours and twenty-seven minutes, “Into the Wild” is wildly self-indulgent and wildly overlong. A good editor with sharp skills could have easily trimmed the text down to two hours.

It’s both interesting and frustrating to observe that the approach of Penn the director is vastly different from that of Penn as an actor. Grounded, Penn’s acting is down-to-earth and never pretentious, nailing a wide variety of roles. However, as a director, as was evident in all his features, “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard,” “The Pledge,” he favor lyrical tendencies and langeurs that most critics perceive as overreaching and pretentious.

Though “Into the Wild” is stronger and more coherent than Penn’s first two helming projects, I think that “The Pledge,” is Penn’s best work to date, in large part due to the narrative and Jack Nicholson’s bravura performance.

Inevitable comparisons will be made between “Into the Wild” and Terrence Malick’s oeuvre, specifically “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” both of which dealt lyrically with misfits and outcasts. While watching “Into the Wild,” I kept thinking of the strategy that another exotic director, Werner Herzog, would have taken to the text, which is right up his alley.

Hirsch, who continues to develop after a string of TV and indie film (the Sundance entry “The Mudge Boy,” the surfing feature “Lords of Dogtown”), dominated the screen in a challenging role that calls for immense powers of concentration. For long stretches, he’s the only presence and voice on screen, and he appears in nearly every scene. As a result of Penn’s direction, Hirsch leaves McCandless’ character ambiguous and open to interpretations.

Much attention will be accorded to the physical requirements of the role, with Hirsch’s weight needing to drop from 156 pounds to 116 during the course of the eight-month shoot, though Hirsch renders a solid performance that goes beyond that regime.

More problematic are Harden and Hurt, two terrific actors who seem limited by their narrowly conceived roles. Who were Christopher’s parents Were they really the hypocritical ultra-bourgeois suffocating parents as their son saw them.

Shot on locations, where Christopher actually traveled, “Into the Wild” is handsome to look at, due to the widescreen imagery of cult French lenser Eric Gautier.


Christopher McCandless – Emile Hirsch
Billie McCandless – Marcia Gay Harden
Walt McCandless – William Hurt
Carine McCandless – Jena Malone
Jan Burres – Catherine Keener
Rainey – Brian Dierker
Wayne Westerberger – Vince Vaughn
Kevin – Zach Galifianakis
Tracy – Kristen Stewart
Ron Franz – Hal Holbrook


Paramount Vantage release, presented with River Road Entertainment, of a Square One CIH, Linson Film production.
Produced by Sean Penn, Art Linson, William Pohlad.
Executive producers, David Blocker, John J. Kelly, Frank Hildebrand.
Directed, written by Sean Penn, based on the nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer.
Camera: Eric Gautier.
Editor: Jay Lash Cassidy.
Music: Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder; music supervisor, John J. Kelly; original songs, Vedder.
Production designer: Derek R. Hill.
Art director: Domenic Silvestri, John Richardson.
Set decorator: Danielle Berman, Christopher Neely.
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan.
Sound: Edward Tise.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 147 Minutes.

Reviewed by Harry Rubinstein and Emanuel Levy