"Into the Wild" is about a journey, and writer-director Sean Penn wants us to experience every square inch of it. The two-and-a-half-hour film is based on Jon Krakauer's nonfiction bestseller about Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a middle-class kid who graduated Emory University in 1990 and then vanished, burning his ID, donating his life savings (which included his upcoming law school tuition) to charity, and adopting the name Alexander Supertramp. His two year cross-country trek of self-realization ended tragically in Alaska, where he hoped to achieve complete isolation.
Penn lays out McCandless's story for us in a fractured time scheme that attempts to mimic the boy's convoluted, almost hallucinatory odyssey. The not-very-convincing flashbacks to his earlier life, and his often aggravated relationship with his sister (Jena Malone) and especially his parents (played by mumbly William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), don't really help us to understand McCandless's drastic need to flee. Although Penn's view of him is relatively even-handed, ultimately we are watching a species of counterculture sentimentality: The kid needed to unshackle himself from his bourgeois parents.
Because those parents are portrayed so stiffly, and because the people McCandless meets on the road are so much more enthralling, the renunciation of his old life at first seems just. But what is lacking here is the sheer cruelty of McCandless's holistic escapade. We seem to be watching a privileged kid deranged by a misplaced hatred for his father and perhaps by something more psychologically intractable. And yet Penn, while acknowledging these aspects of McCandless, is clearly entranced by the boy's tramp spirit.
Some of the on-the-road adventures are highly evocative. The scenes with a middle-aged hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) are marvelous – they seem to be taking place in The Land That Time Forgot. (If McCandless had been a 1960s hippie instead of a 1990s hippie, he might not have felt so alone.) There's also a heartbreakingly sad sequence featuring Hal Holbrook as a retired Army officer and widower who bonds with McCandless
Penn has a real feeling for the stray moments in life that suddenly rush up and overwhelm us with emotion. He also has an eye for beauty in the wilds, of which this film has many. And he's very good with actors. What he lacks is a sharper eye for the wooziness of romanticism, and that wooziness, despite some truly breathtaking moments, infuses "Into the Wild." Grade: B
• Rated R for language and some nudity.