“Into the Wild,” the new film from prolific actor/director extraordinaire Sean Penn, is part road trip film, part nature documentary, part familial melodrama and part homage to all things hippie. The one thing it isn’t is short. However, despite its somewhat serious pacing problems, “Into the Wild” is a stellar and subversive travelogue that both celebrates and updates the genre.
Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction book about the real-life Christopher McCandless, “Into the Wild” features indie-film heartthrob Emile Hirsch as the captivating, charismatic and kind of crazy protagonist. After graduating from Emory, McCandless attempts to escape the bourgeois hypocrisy of his social-climbing, secretive and somewhat abusive parents – played to pinch-mouthed perfection by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt – by setting off on a cross-country road trip. As he traverses the nation, he finds himself slipping into surrogate families in surroundings that include a farming operation, a hippie commune and a kindly old man’s leather workshop. Eventually, McCandless makes his way to Alaska, where he lives off the land and attempts to live out all of his Thoreau- and London-inspired fantasies.
Throughout the movie, the film’s narrative slips between McCandless’ adventures in Alaska and the road trip he took to get there – and the whole thing is centered via voice-over narration by the emotional and empathetic Jena Malone, who alternates between adulation and abandonment as McCandless’ sister Carine.
Lacking a linear narrative, “Into the Wild” is wholly anchored by Hirsch’s breakout performance. Here, the pretty boy who shone like a young Leo DiCaprio in indie hits like “The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” “Lords of Dogtown” and “Alpha Dog,” proves his prowess as a prodigal talent, playing McCandless with a visceral physicality that completely conveys the character’s complex mix of intensity, intelligence, hubris and humor. Just as Hirsch undergoes a serious physical transformation over the course of the film, so too does his ability to truly inhabit the character, to such an extent that, by the end of the movie, it is impossible to tear yourself away from his riveting and raw performance.
Other standouts in the film include Vince Vaughn as the wily but lovable Wayne Westerberg – owner of the aforementioned farming operation and small-time criminal to boot – Kristen Stewart as McCandless’ ingénue love interest and Steven Wiig as the kindly old man who ultimately serves as the film’s foremost father figure. And no review of the film would be complete without a mention of the incredible soundtrack by Eddie Vedder. It’s Vedder in all of his grunge glory, with the addition of some incredibly adept guitar work and lyrics that evoke everything the film’s visuals so stunningly capture.
In fact, the film’s stunning cinematography of the sweeping, majestic landscape in which it is set falls nothing short of breathtaking and stands out just as much as the actors’ powerful performances. Although the movie tends to take too much time admiring the proverbial view – a tactic that tends to slow it down and causes it to clock in at a whopping two-plus hours – every shot that hits the screen seems more stunning than the next, which almost makes it okay. However, the film’s major flaw is still its length and somewhat plodding pacing.
Despite this, “Into the Wild” is still an incredible film to experience. It’s beautifully shot, powerfully scripted and incredibly well-acted – especially by the almost-guaranteed-to-be-Oscar-nominated Hirsch. As an actor, Sean Penn may already be a proven talent, but “Into the Wild” also cements him as a directorial force to be reckoned with.