A superb cast and an even-handed treatment of a true story buoy Into the Wild, Sean Penn’s screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book. Emile Hirsch stars as Christopher McCandless, scion of a prosperous but troubled family who, after graduating from Atlanta’s Emory University in the early 1990s, decides to chuck it all and become a self-styled “aesthetic voyager” in search of “ultimate freedom.” He certainly doesn’t do it halfway: after donating his substantial savings account to charity and literally torching the rest of his cash, McCandless changes his name (to “Alexander Supertramp”), abandons his family (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his bickering, clueless parents and Jena Malone as his baffled but loving sister, who relates much of the backstory in voice-over), and hits the road, bound for the Alaskan bush and determined not to be found. For the next two years he lives the life of a vagabond, working a few odd jobs, kayaking through the Grand Canyon into Mexico, landing on L.A.’s Skid Row, and turning his back on everyone who tried to befriends him (including Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as two kindly, middle-aged hippies and Hal Holbrook in a deeply affecting performance as an old widower who tries to take “Alex” under his wing). Penn, who directed and wrote the screenplay, alternates these interludes with scenes depicting McCandless’ Alaskan idyll–which soon turns out be not so idyllic after all. Settling into an abandoned school bus, he manages to sustain himself for a while, shooting small game (and one very large moose), reading, and recording his existential musings on paper. But when the harsh realities of life in the wilderness set in, our boy finds himself well out of his depth, not just ill-prepared for the rigors of day to day survival but realizing the importance of the very thing he wanted to escape–namely, human relationships. It’d be easy to either idealize McCandless as a genuinely free spirit, unencumbered by the societal strictures that tie the rest of us down, or else dismiss him as a hopelessly callow naïf, a fool whose disdain for practical realities ultimately doomed him. Into the Wild does neither, for the most part telling the tale with an admirable lack of cheap sentiment and leaving us to decide for ourselves. –Sam Graham
This movie is a grand adventure, and a cautionary tale to any ararcho-primitivist or survivalist who decides that they can do without all human relationships.