Telling the true story of ill-fated adventurer Christopher McCandless, Into The Wild plays like a haunting postcard from the great beyond. Sean Penn adapted the book by Jon Krakauer and directs the film, which backtracks through the winding highways and side roads that led McCandless to his untimely demise in the Alaskan wilderness. Playing the lead, Emile Hirsch captures all of the arrogance, integrity, naiveté and charm of this complex, troubled young man.
Clouds gather ominously from the opening sequence when McCandless trudges through snowfields and discovers an abandoned school bus. He makes this his home and the subsequent struggle to find food is drawn out between flashbacks of people he's encountered along the way. Brief impressions of his middle class upbringing are thrown in too and gradually a picture of deep discontent begins to form, hinting at why McCandless went AWOL. Meanwhile his parents (an underused Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are left to ponder.
"A FORCE OF NATURE IN HIMSELF"
Fuelled by the writings of Tolstoy and Jack London, MacCandless appears to fancy himself as a modern-day folk hero, but Penn doesn't impose any judgements. The portrayal is sympathetic and at the same time, infuriating. These feelings are echoed onscreen by those who give McCandless shelter on his ultimate quest for solitude. These substitute parents include Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook delivering poignant turns; each one imparting some lesson in a heartbreaking coming-of-age story where self-awareness comes too late. It can sometimes feel like the pit stops are too long and Penn has an annoying tendency to draw attention to the camera, but for every indulgence the journey remains compelling. McCandless is such a vivid and enigmatic character - a force of nature in himself - that his story grips you till the bitter end.
Into The Wild is out in the UK on 9th November 2007.