October 11, 2007

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Into the Wild (R)
A boy gives away his money, burns his identification, changes his name and wanders off into the west in Into the Wild, a Sean Penn-helmed adaptation of the nonfiction movie by the same name.

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduates Emory University and is poised to have the bright, successful future his parents want for him. But instead of using his several-thousands-of-dollars-large savings account for graduate school, he sends his money to OxFam, cuts up his identification cards, burns his Social Security card, packs a few meager belongings (including books) and heads west. When his car is caught in a flood in Arizona, he abandons it, burns the rest of his money and sets off on foot. He travels the country — sometimes on foot, sometimes in the vehicle of someone who picked him up while hitch-hiking, sometimes in a kayak he purchased with money from a temporary job working the combine in wheat fields. While we cut back to scenes of his parents — father Walt (William Hurt) and mother Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) — worried about his sudden and willful disappearance, we see Christopher (who has changed his name to Alex Supertramp) make a sort of road family of two hippies, the combine boss and an old man. He is, we are led to believe, happy and free in a way his old life never let him be.

These scenes of his journey are shown as sort of flashbacks from scenes of Alex in the thick of his greatest adventure, an excursion into the Alaskan wilderness. He has gathered gear (a gun, a fishing net, a sleeping bag, etc.) for the trip and even purchased a book about local flora and fauna to help him hunt and gather his food. At first, the trip goes well. He stumbles upon an abandoned Fairbanks city bus that has been outfitted as a small cabin — there’s a bed, a stove, some utensils. But food is always scarce and there’s no guaranteeing leaving nature will be as easy as entering it.

For those who haven’t read the book or magazine stories from which it came or news stories about the book or about Christopher McCandless himself, you might consider this next part sort of a SPOILER ALERT. Chris/Alex and nature do not part on good terms, with nature making a rather decisive victory over Alex, if you get my drift. The difficulty of this is that about 35 percent (maybe more) of the movie consists of Alex alone, alone with his college-graduate, too-much-time-in-his-head thoughts. It’s all on Hirsch to make these scenes work without turning them into acting workshop exercises. It’s a credit to Hirsch and Penn that for the most part these opportunities to let Hirsch thespian out are not overly actory. He doesn’t just “develop a character” but Hirsch gives us a person, a real complex person with parental issues and personal frustrations that have led him to reject what he sees as a materialistic life and live out some manifest destiny fantasy. I believed Alex — he felt like a real kid, one who was smart and self-reliant but also at a loss when it came to close personal relationships or serious contemplation of the future. Is Alex’s Alaska trip (indeed, all of his dangerous “leather tramp” adventure, as one character calls it) a way to get back at the parents who had deeply angered him, an unconsciously suicidal act or a calculated pre-adulthood adventure which Alex at one point mentions wanting to write a book about? At various points, all three seem likely.

Hirsch isn’t the only one who gets the room to give a character genuineness. Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook — all playing people Alex meets along his travels — give us their own characters’ stories in their scenes with Alex. When the movie was done, I was as eager to find out about them as I was about McCandless and his family. It’s the characters (and the elegant restraint with which they’re developed) that give this movie its engrossing page-turner feel. B+

Rated R for language and some nudity. Directed by Sean Penn and written by Sean Penn from the nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is two hours and 20 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Paramount Vantage.