In 1992, Chris McCandless was found dead by some moose hunters in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley, marking a tragic end to an extraordinary journey across the American landscape. Jon Krakauer's wonderful book Into The Wild—and its deft new film adaptation by writer-director Sean Penn—reveals a young man of inspiring vision and dogged contradiction, driven at once by his angry rejection of consumerist society, his despair over personal betrayals, and an infectious love of the natural world. McCandless remains a controversial figure; when Krakauer first published his story in Outside magazine, many wrote letters saying he deserved his fate for heading half-cocked into an unforgiving environment. Tempting as it might be to dismiss McCandless as a hare-brained hippie, he's not so easily reduced, and Penn does well to honor his slippery nature, even as he's clearly awed by his grand adventure.
Working with the great French cinematographer Eric Gautier, Penn follows McCandless' zig-zagging trail through the more remote outposts in the continental United States, from a grain operation in Carthage, South Dakota to the geographical accident that is California's Salton Sea. Played by Emile Hirsch, who never quite connects to the role (perhaps by design), McCandless began his journey shortly after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, when he gave away his $25,000 savings to charity and drove off in his beat-up Datsun, looking for adventure. Inspired by authors like Thoreau and Jack London, he tramped around the country with minimal resources, popping up occasionally to work odd jobs, but only to scrape together the materials he needed to survive on his own. His ultimate goal was to make it up to Alaska, but a few months after heading off into the wilderness, a couple of critical mistakes cost him his life.
Though structured in chapters that evolve from McCandless' rebirth to death, Into The Wild still has a loose, unmoored style that's perfectly suited to a life lived on the fly. Penn could stand to be fairer to McCandless' parents, whose rocky marriage was at the root of his anguish, but other characters are vividly sketched, especially an aging widower from Salton City (beautifully played by Hal Halbrook) who came to see him as a surrogate son. There's a bittersweet quality to McCandless' story that Penn captures intuitively: His death was a tragedy, since his sojourn in Alaska was by no means a suicide mission, yet his journey was fulfilling, too, because he saw and experienced things that most spend their sheltered lifetimes avoiding. In Penn, himself a restless seeker and world traveler, he's found a kindred spirit.