Occasionally, I’ll pass a homeless person who is obviously a slumming middle-class kid in nose rings, and when I do, I generally have to stifle the desire to bark out something like ”Go back to Seattle!” I felt stirrings of that sentiment during the early scenes of Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer best-seller — a true-life adventure that is really a descent. The film is set in the early ’90s, when Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who is just out of college, leaves the privileged life he has known to become a self-styled vagabond. He exits his existence, donating his savings ($24,292) to Oxfam, dropping out in the style of a ’60s hippie-tramp who’s trashed all ambition.
Here, though, there is no counterculture to second his voyage. He’s spiritually out on his own. Christopher isn’t rebelling against anything too remarkable. On the road, he gripes about the evils of ”society,” and he nurses family wounds: the father (William Hurt) who was a materialist, and violent, too; the mother (Marcia Gay Harden) who enabled him. Playing this bitter young dreamer, Emile Hirsch is baby-faced and placid, with serious knitted eyebrows and a pouf of George Michael-in-the-wild hair. Sexy, with an entitled aura, he could almost be part of Vincent Chase’s entourage. I thought: What does this dude have to escape from? What is his problem?
The beauty of Into the Wild, which Penn has written and directed with magnificent precision and imaginative grace, is that what Christopher is running from is never as important as what he’s running to. He craves splendor and risk, a way of shaking off his suburban numbness. And he craves it so badly that he gets addicted to it. He’s a Gen-X Candide who blends striving with flaming out until you can’t tell the difference. Wandering the desert with a volume of Thoreau in hand, kayaking his way down the Colorado River without rowing skills (or a permit), finally voyaging into the mountains of Alaska, as far from humanity as he can get, he takes a journey of recklessness that maybe only a privileged kid could have imagined. Yet there’s a bravery to its indulgence. He’s going nowhere, just living, maybe dying — and embracing the adventure.
Into the Wild delivers his journey to your senses. It’s an intensely physical movie, yet it’s never just physical. Every image (rivers, highways, icy mountains) tells its own story — of a terrain that must be met, and then conquered. The people Christopher meets, and touches, along the way are as much a part of the trip as his crash course in wilderness survival. Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as hippie wanderers, Hal Holbrook (in a luminous performance) as an old man cocooned in his loneliness — these are quietly distressed hangers-on of the sort you rarely see in movies. You can feel Penn, along with his hero, struggling to locate a hidden America. Into the Wild is a little too long, yet Christopher’s deliverance, in a rusty abandoned ”magic bus” in Alaska, has a darkling purity that will haunt anyone willing to take the trip. A-