It’s easy to envy Chris McCandless, who in the early 1990s chose “ultimate freedom” over a wealthy Virginia suburb. Not bound by a job or any responsibilities, he hitchhiked across the United States and up the West Coast and eventually made it to Alaska. By age 23 he had already lived more than most of us ever will.
Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into the Wild chronicles the true story of McCandless’ journey, and the book inspired screenwriter-director Sean Penn to make the movie of the same name, which hits Louisville theaters October 19. Penn is known as an Oscar-winning actor, but he has also done some solid directing — 2001’s The Pledge comes to mind. It’s Into the Wild that cements his status as a talent behind the camera.
Emile Hirsch (Alpha Dog) plays McCandless, who has just graduated from Emory University. Instead of going to law school or seeking a lucrative job — like his dad’s at NASA — he donates $24,000 in savings to Oxfam, burns his Social Security card, fills his blue backpack with works by Jack London and Henry David Thoreau, and leaves without telling his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone, Saved!) or parents (William Hurt, A History of Violence; Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River). Though he’s close with Carine their home life is always turbulent, and McCandless heads as far west as his old Datsun can make it. Then it’s happily walking and hitchhiking through Arizona, South Dakota and California, sleeping in a tent and reliving life the way he’s always wanted to.
Over the course of his epic adventure, he works odd jobs and meets hippies Rainey (newcomer Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener, Capote), grain elevator foreman Wayne (Vince Vaughn, Wedding Crashers) and a lonely old man named Ron (veteran Hal Holbrook). No matter how much these people admire him and want him to hang around, though, Alaska calls.
Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier — with original Eddie Vedder songs — beautifully capture every environment, from expansive shots of the Alaskan wilderness to planting you right in McCandless’ kayak as he maneuvers through river rapids. And even though Hirsch is on screen for the majority of the more than two-hour running time, he’s captivating every minute of it.
Vince Vaughn gives a good, non-Old School performance. Holbrook is devastating as a man realizing he’s wasted much of his life. And Keener is the woman McCandless’ mother never was. But this is Hirsch’s film. No matter the situation, Hirsch — who lost 40 pounds for the role — makes you watch.
For those who haven’t read the book, we won’t reveal how the “Great Alaskan Adventure” unfolds. Really it’s not important. Into the Wild is about experiencing and appreciating life and how the trip is only as good as the people you share it with. By the /files/storyimages/of his journey, McCandless knows this better than anybody.