Sean Penn’s Into the Wild documents the heartbreaking true story of Christopher McCandless, who shunned society and disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 at age 24. McCandless’ journey is a tragic one, extraordinarily documented in Jon Krakauer’s excellent book by the same name and recreated here.
Though at times a draining experience, the film ultimately serves as both a celebration of the kind of lifestyle we’ve all imagined from time to time, as well as a cautionary tale against the dangers of a nature we, perhaps, don’t know enough about as we should.
Emile Hirsch is captivating as McCandless, who goes from youthful, bright-eyed college graduate to rugged traveler and makeshift survivalist between 1990 and 1992. Upon graduating from Emory with straight A’s, McCandless donates his grad school savings to charity, cuts up his IDs and credit cards, burns his cash and abandons his car in the desert.
He takes to the road with only the possessions he can carry on his back, which includes the prophetic book, ‘Edible Plants and Berries’. Dubbing himself ‘Alexander Supertramp’, he relies mostly on the kindness of strangers, people who Krakauer incredibly tracked down for the book and are played here by actors like Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook and Kristen Stewart. Each of them aids him on his journey and McCandless, misguided as he may be, has plenty to offer them as well.
The film is framed with the scenes of Alaska and McCandless’ survival inside the ‘magic bus’ he discovers in the middle of nowhere, and things turn intensely sad as our hero becomes a victim of his own inexperience. But never too sad; it’s a compelling tale, told with, at times, the same kind of exuberance of it’s leading character.
Cinematography by Eric Gautier, especially of the Alaskan landscapes, is simultaneously breathtaking and frightening. Excellent original music by Michael Brook, Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder is complemented by a well-chosen soundtrack.
Also see Alone in the Wilderness, the true story of Dick Proenneke, who similarly abandoned society for the Alaskan wilderness in the late 1960’s.
Proenneke did it right, however, and the film, which consists of footage he shot of building a log cabin and other aspects of survival, is fascinating; his resourcefulness makes for an interesting comparison to McCandless’ youthful inexperience.