"Into The Wild" is a staggering motion picture.
Based on actual events, captured in book form by Jon Krakauer, "Into The Wild" has been made into a prayer of a motion picture by Sean Penn.
It may not touch everybody, but those whom it does touch, it will touch deeply. It is a haunting odyssey.
In 1990, Christopher McCandless, at the age of 20, graduated from Emory University in Atlanta. He gave the money remaining in his college fund -- $24,000 -- to charity, burned his cash and social security card, and went on the road in his beat-up Datsun. He was headed for Alaska.
Chris was the offspring of Jack London, Henry David Thoreau, Holden Caulfield and Jack Kerouac. He was a fierce anti-materialistic, self-absorbed dreamer. He was also little more than a boy. He left a mother and father who were always bickering and who were dedicated to the status of riches and ownership, and a younger sister whom he loved and tried to protect. He orphaned himself and renamed himself, pretentiously, Alexander Supertramp. His name may be the only pretension in the movie.
"Into The Wild" is as much about contact and connection with human beings as it is about the wilderness.
Near the end, Chris writes in his notebook, "I'm lonely." He misses other humans. And it's no wonder, because on the road he forges meaningful human, symbiotic connections. Some become his personal mentors.
Chris meets a former hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) who are still on the road. They are having personal problems, but their encounter with Chris gives them a fresh perspective. And they care for him.
In South Dakota, Chris meets a grain farmer (Vince Vaughan) who has some illegal activities going on the side. He also becomes a mentor for the young explorer.
Perhaps the most moving encounter is when Chris meets an 80-year old retired Army man (Hal Holbrook) who lives alone, working with leather. They share visions.
The cast is wonderfully human. Holbrook gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the old man whose spirit is reinvigorated. Catherine Keener, as always, is palpably human as the aging hippie. Her partner, Walt, is played by Brian Dierker. Who's he? You don't know Brian Dierker unless you've gone down the rapids of the Colorado River. Up to this affecting performance, Dierker has not been an actor. He is a whitewater rafting guide whom Penn met on location. But he's ideal for the role, and adds to the intriguing reality.
Emile Hirsch, as Chris, is on the screen most of the 140 minutes. He's memorably convincing as the wayward, young seeker.
Sean Penn is both screenwriter and director of "Into The Wild," and he never lets interest lapse. If one is to have qualms, it is that almost all the people Chris meets on the road are kind and generous. One might resist that, if he thinks too much rather than feels. I never thought I would say it -- but don't think too much.
With "Into The Wild," Penn is a descendant of Frank Capra. If you'd reject Capra, you might reject Penn's movie.
Sean Penn is a political lightning rod, but if there are any politics in "Into The Wild," they remain nuances. When an eagle pecks at carrion, it might be suggestive, but this is subtle.
Sean Penn, in his way, loves his country, and "Into The Wild" is very much a labor of love.
"Into The Wild" may awaken one's wanderlust. As a boy, I ran away from home. I've driven across the country three times. I'm no hiker, but I trekked through the Wissahickon woods -- where Grace Kelly once roamed -- in Pennsylvania and John Bryan State Park in Ohio. "Into The Wild" brings back that vital feeling of wanderlust.
"Into The Wild" is both sweet and harrowing. There's an ineffable sadness to this young man's quest for a better world. It is a commitment most of us have given up.
Christopher McCandless relights the torch of our innocence. "Into The Wild" is a spiritual reverie.
It just may help save our souls.
For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).
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