Sean Penn's Into the Wild (Paramount) is a bit like the trackless Alaskan forest where its hero meets his grim demise. It's seductively beautiful but tough to hack your way through, and it's all too easy to get lost in. After more than two and a half hours in the company of the idealistic, self-dramatizing, but resourceful and ultimately appealing Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), it's hard not to feel at least a chin-chucking affection for this deluded youth. But it's also hard not to feel that Penn is stacking the deck heavily in his favor and losing out on the chance for a more sober meditation on the ambiguity of McCandless' quest.
Jon Krakauer's nonfiction account of the events leading up to the real Chris McCandless' death of starvation in 1992 was a triumph of gumshoe reporting. He followed Chris' tracks from the Arizona desert (where the boy abandoned his car in a gulch, burned all his cash, and took to the open road) through California, South Dakota, and finally Alaska. Krakauer's presence as an investigator is an important part of the book—there's a significant narrative detour in which he compares the rigidly ideological McCandless to his younger self. Penn drops that frame story entirely, probably to allow the viewer more direct access to the boy's experience—he's interested in telling the story of a spiritual journey, not a fact-finding mission. This wasn't a terrible choice—the movie has no shortage of story lines as it is—except that Penn displaces Krakauer's poetic speculation onto various voice-over narrators, chiefly Chris' sister, Carine (Jena Malone). We don't learn much about Carine as a character, but she could apply for an MFA program with the reams of lyrical prose she spouts about her brother.
But Penn performs one bit of sleight-of-hand on the book that's borderline unforgivable. In an attempt, perhaps, to justify Chris' decision not to communicate with his parents for more than two years (he failed to notify them before he hit the road, and they never saw him alive again), Penn inserts a flashback back story that shows the McCandless' relationship as abusive and violent. In grainy Super 8-style scenes, the parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) drink and push each other around as the young Chris and Carine look on. It's a Lifetime TV rule that this movie should have risen above: Every questionable moral action must be explained by an equal and opposite childhood trauma. In Krakauer's account, McCandless's father, Walt, was something of a remote perfectionist but certainly no wife-beater. As for Billie McCandless, she sewed the sleeping bag in which her son would eventually meet his end (a heartbreaking detail that, had Penn left it in, might have cast his proudly self-sufficient hero in a less idealizing light). If I were a member of the McCandless family, I'd be furious at this insertion, but Penn waited years for the parents' permission—presumably, they allowed him the license to fictionalize as he saw fit.
The real McCandless was a maddeningly opaque figure whose contradictions make the book a great read: both a radical anti-materialist and a fan of Ronald Reagan, an ascetic who shrank from human contact but charmed everyone he met. The movie, aided by Eddie Vedder's earnest keening on the soundtrack, leans more toward the straightforwardly hagiographic. It doesn't hurt that losing 40 pounds while growing long hair and a beard would make any actor look like Christ.
There are some scenes that poke fun at Chris' adolescent self-seriousness: In a bar, he rants to Wayne (Vince Vaughn), the boss of a threshing plant where he's found temporary employment, about the evils of "society" until Vaughn picks up the chant, yelling, "Society! Society!" in a drunken crescendo. Catherine Keener (who's fast becoming the most welcome supporting-actor face this side of Harry Dean Stanton) plays a hippie tramp who takes Chris in for a while and chides him for neglecting his family: "You look like a loved kid." But a long section in which a widowed old man, Ron (Hal Holbrook), befriends the wandering boy made me cringe. By way of proving his spiritual mettle, or sense of adventure, or something, the octogenarian is repeatedly exhorted to scale a steep, rocky hill overlooking the Salton Sea. When he finally makes it to the top, faltering and heaving for breath, Chris—and the movie—would have us believe that Ron's ascent is a moment of unalloyed triumph. But isn't the boy's insistence that an old man clamber up a cliff in street shoes also inconsiderate, not to mention dangerous? It wouldn't have been impossible to pay tribute to Chris' expansive spirit while recognizing his arrogance and intransigence (which were, in the end, what killed him—if he'd deigned to bring a map with him on his final trek, he'd have known he was just a few miles from safety).
I guess it's a sign of middle age when you identify with the tottering oldster or the bereaved parent as much as the Thoreau-reading, angry young man. Still, Emile Hirsch brings a gentle, loveable quality to McCandless, and Penn's project has moments of ecstatic beauty. The soaring helicopter shots of snowy expanses may be more indebted to the Imax documentary than the road picture, but Eric Gautier's camera makes Mt. McKinley look spectacular (and slaughtering a moose look really gross). This paean to youth, stupidity, and the wilderness may inspire more than a few impromptu camping trips. But please, kids, take a map.