At the time of its 1996 publication, Krakauer's book about McCandless, Into the Wild, sparked a predictable array of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. It is to the credit of Sean Penn that his version will provoke no less animated a debate about its subject and about its very existence as a movie, which can be construed as a further cashing-in on the McCandless family's tragedy or as the ideal vessel for a story about one man's communion with the last remaining wide-open spaces of the American West.
To these eyes, Into the Wild is an unusually soulful and poetic movie that crystallizes McCandless in all his glittering enigma. Penn allows us to decide for ourselves whether McCandless was the spiritual son of Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and John Muir or the boy most likely to become Theodore Kaczynski. Like Krakauer, Penn has conceived McCandless' story in road-movie terms — a new-millennium Easy Rider that opens with McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) embarking on the Alaskan pilgrimage that was to have been the final leg of a two-year transcontinental adventure. Then the film loops back to McCandless' college graduation and his attempt to pacify his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) by promising to apply to Harvard Law School. But no sooner does McCandless toss his mortarboard into the air than he sets about the symbolic desecration of credit cards and ID, the donation of his entire life savings to Oxfam, and the severing of all ties with family and friends.
Between those bookends, Into the Wild takes to the highways and back roads of places named Niland, Carthage, Slab City and Oh My God Hotsprings, capturing a vivid panorama of burnouts, dropouts and other self-proclaimed "tramps" who have gone in search of something more — or less — than mainstream society can afford them. I realize that description risks making Into the Wild sound like two and a half hours of hippie-dippy philosophizing, courtesy of one of conservative America's favorite Hollywood-liberal punching bags. But Penn's film burns with native intelligence. It never tips too far into hagiography, and it does what very few purveyors of McCandless' story have been able or willing to do: Engage him on his own terms.
As screenwriter, Penn has done a superb job of giving shape and dimension to characters who passed only fleetingly through Krakauer's pages — the fellow travelers McCandless encountered on his journey, some of whose lives he irrevocably altered. They include the South Dakota grain-elevator operator Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) and the octogenarian widower Ron Franz, played by Hal Holbrook in a performance that is as much a thing of beauty as any of the film's ravishingly photographed wide-screen western vistas.
Penn also seems more engaged with the language of cinema here than he has in any of his previous directorial efforts (which include the excellent The Pledge and the overwrought The Crossing Guard). He toys with form (multiple narrators, passages of text scrawled across the screen) in a way that sometimes feels self-conscious but lends Into the Wild the sense of experimentation that emboldened the great American films of the 1970s. Most of all, Penn gives Hirsch space to build a performance of enormous physical and psychological rigor.
Is the movie less than judicious with respect to McCandless' parents and sister, who exist in the film mostly as phantoms of a discarded existence? Arguably so, until you consider that, during his entire two years on the road, McCandless failed to place a single phone call home. Part of the enduring fascination with McCandless, of course, is that his story tends to mean considerably different things depending on where you're standing — whether you are parent or child, restless wanderer or happy conformist. Penn's triumph is that he manages to see McCandless as both boy and man, prophet and fraud, vagabond and visionary. Which is, I suspect, awfully close to how McCandless saw himself.