BY KATIE MAPES
Director: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch
“Into the Wild” may be the perfect fall movie. As classes move inexorably toward finals for which we are not prepared, and as the days get shorter and colder, there is something highly satisfying in watching a movie about someone who (a) opts out of the system entirely, and (b) endures physical conditions much more strenuous than even the worst that the Boston winter will throw at us.
“Into the Wild,” based on the best selling book by Jon Krakauer (which is, itself, based on a true story), follows Christopher McCandless, a young man from a troubled but well-to-do family. After graduating from Emory University, Chris donates his life savings to charity, burns his driver’s license and social security card, and heads out west, going by the name “Alexander Supertramp.”
The movie’s narrative runs along parallel tracks. On one track, we see Chris in the Alaskan wilderness, where he sets up camp in an abandoned bus and attempts to live off the land with mixed success. In the other, we see Chris’s (roundabout) journey to Alaska, in which he works as a farmhand, hangs out at an abandoned military base, kayaks down the Colorado River, and finds several sets of surrogate parents.
Emile Hirsch plays the role of Chris beautifully, making an understandable character out of someone whose motivations could have come across as utterly bizarre. The supporting cast is strong as well, although the plot point of Chris showing up, adopting a new set of parental figures, then leaving town despite their protests became quickly played out. That said, much of it worked nicely. Catherine Keener (“The 40 Year Old Virgin”), playing a California hippie estranged from her own son, was the particular stand-out of this section of the film, and her relationship as pseudo-mother to Chris developed with a great deal of depth and poignancy.
The sections of the film set in Alaska could have been dull but, intercut with scenes of Chris’s past, moved quite quickly, in spite of the lack of dialogue. Certainly, they weren’t hurt by the breathtaking landscape in which they were shot, but all the same, Hirsch did an impressive job of carrying these mostly-wordless scenes.
What did drag was the film’s use of voiceover narration by Chris’s younger sister, which the directors – presumably in a misguided effort to keep things clear for the viewer – overused to the point that it often became a distraction. Excerpts from Chris’s letters to friends, scrawled on the screen in yellow, proved to be similarly problematic.
All in all, “Into the Wild” was an intensely fascinating movie, notable not only for its impressive cinematography, but also for Hirsch’s subtle and intelligent characterization of Chris McCandless. That it is based on a true story makes it more interesting yet.