Off the Road

    But McCandless couldn’t take these things with him on his trip. And had he not died of starvation by virtual accident in the Alaskan wilderness, he would have gotten what he wanted and we would have never heard his story.

    But of course, we did — first, on the pages of John Krakauer’s bestselling book, and now, through the harrowing lens of actor-turned-director Sean Penn, who tells the cross-continental mini-epic with eager bursts of visual existentialism. After a 10-year fight to acquire the rights to the book and the consent of the McCandless famiy, Penn’s pet-project endurance has paid off: His film finds every shade of unintentional beauty in the young traveler’s quest for enlightenment, a worthy extension of the rugged individualism preached by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jack London and others of the “Walden” tradition.

    Along a swirling string of adventures, young talent Emile Hirsch — so spotless in his Oscar-warranting embodiment of the wide-eyed traveler that he is almost not worth identifying as anyone other than McCandless, — takes up with an on-the-rocks hippie couple (Brian Dierker and the matriarchal Catherine Keener), finds work with a grizzled Dakota farmer (the brutally realistic Vince Vaughn), ends up on Los Angeles’ skid row and, in the most moving of his episodes, creates a father-son bond with a wilted veteran (Hal Holbrook). The boy is able to form the kind of family on the road that he never had back home, his blood relations glimpsed only through a sister’s narration and old Super-8 images of his folks (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden). But they’re suburbanite monstrosities of a consumer culture that McCandless wants nothing to do with. Ahead lies only Alaska, his promised land.

    Penn expertly contrasts these journeys with a now 24-year-old McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness, at adventure’s end, where he finds refuge in an abandoned schoolbus — unaware of nature’s impartiality — and begins constructing the isolated utopia that will ultimately seal his fate. Cinematographer Eric Gautier captures the isolating vastness of McCandless’ space, alternating panoramas and close-ups to the husky acoustics of Eddie Vedder, whose songs transform stunning images of nature into a philosophical manifesto. It all peaks when Hirsch has ultimately faded from fresh-faced idealist to rag-and-bones survivor during the last moments of life. At that point, Penn’s cutthroat direction and the actor’s remarkable craft unveil a stark and painful reality: the logistics of literally starving to death.

    Although some moments are laid on a little thick — and despite the fact that Penn has never met a montage he didn’t like (how else to compact a film whose first cut was supposedly five hours?) — “Into the Wild” is a perspective-jolter for we soon-to-be graduates who still dream of being the wealthiest man on the block. Some may argue the film glorifies an unprepared idiot, but to reduce him to such is to misunderstand McCandless’ purpose. Sure, his quest to become a sort of self-sufficient monk did ultimately cause his demise, but this outcome can only negate his living intentions as much as any human end. His death makes his path no different than ours — except that his, a chosen flight through fire and ice, is a resounding testament to an extraordinary will.

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