Though Into the Wild stands as just the second time Sean Penn has directed, written and produced a single film – the last being 1995's well-received box office failure The Crossing Guard – the renowned actor's expertise from behind the camera is effortlessly shown here in his faithful adaptation of a 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by John Krakauer about the adventures of Christopher McCandless. Surprisingly, Into the Wild is the first time since 2001 that Penn has even directed a film. Yet, his lack of an impressive track record, acting aside, does not appear to be an issue here. Taking its story out of the picture, Into the Wild is visually interesting, with Penn using all corners of the frame – literally - to tell his story of McCandless, who abandoned his family immediately following his college graduation in 1990 in order to hitchhike to Alaska. Along the way, the young man meets a slew of interesting characters who change his life (and he theirs) as he continues onward.
Movie Review: Into the Wild
By Eric Hughes
January 31, 2008
Though McCandless' story is quite simple, this isn't to say it lacks in depth. Into the Wild is harrowing, gripping and heroic, really, as McCandless is forced to face – on his own accord - harsh weather conditions, fierce wildlife and the repetitious tightening of his personal belt, which he continually pokes new holes into as his body weight steadily decreases. And the fact that the film is based on a true story makes Emile Hirsch's "character" that much more real, even if the real-life McCandless already met his fatal end more than 15 years ago.
For the film, Penn assembled an ensemble cast to portray its leads, including Hirsch, who takes a break from teen sex comedies to portray a more mature McCandless; William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his parents; and Jena Malone his sister. And Hal Holbrook partly steals the show as Ron Franz, a wise, congenial old man who one day happens upon McCandless on the road, and then can never seem to let go. Underutilized, though, are some of the other folk McCandless runs into during his trek, including Vince Vaughn, who is miscast anyway as a farmer who McCandless befriends in order to earn some quick cash.
Providing musical accompaniment to the film – which is as near to perfect as Penn probably could have imagined – is Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam. Penn handpicked Vedder to take over Into the Wild's soundtrack with music composer Michael Brook, and Vedder's distinctive voice absolutely shines here. Perhaps the film's best track is Guaranteed, which already has received critical acclaim from the television and film industry (a Golden Globe win), and the music industry (a nomination for a 2008 Grammy). Variations of the song appear throughout the course of the film, where Vedder hums the lyrics without pronunciation. Only at the very end can we finally hear its escapist and beautifully enlightened words, which seem to serve as the film's thesis. Or at the very least, an illustration of what McCandless stood for: rejection of capitalism, technology and cut-throat competition in favor of a return to the wild.