Movie review: Wilderness entered, but not conquered |

Movie review: Wilderness entered, but not conquered

Ted AlvarezVail, CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily

Youd be hard-pressed to find a bookshelf in the Vail Valley without a well-thumbed copy of Jon Krakauers Into the Wild. Krakauers diligent research and no-frills writing laid bare the true story of Chris McCandless, an upper-middle class youth who burned his savings, ID and connections to everyone he knew upon graduating from Emory. He alighted for adventures west, and eventually north to Alaska, in a search to shed his false self. Krakauers book turned McCandless into a sort of folk hero, and screenwriter-director Sean Penn cements his legend with Into the Wild, a rapturously faithful and beautiful adaptation of the book. Regardless of your position on McCandless predicament (he was often ill-prepared and didnt even bring a map into Alaska), its hard not to identify with his sense of adventure and desire to carve a new life outside of the trappings of society. For McCandless, a map was beside the point. Where Krakauers book tells a more well-rounded account of McCandlesss life and interactions with others, Penn wisely keeps his lens trained solely on the existential hero as he tramps about the southwest, west and Alaska under the new name of Alexander Supertramp. Assorted characters South Dakota granary operator Wayne (Vince Vaughn), rubber-tramp hippie couple Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), an elderly widower in the desert (Hal Holbrook) pass in and out of his life, and they all form attachments to the charming wanderer. But McCandless is always just passing through, evolving toward his promised test of manhood in Alaska.We see glimpses of ambiguity and doubt in the faces of the people he meets, but Penn is too enraptured by his subject to let those doubts sink in. Instead, the dirtbag philosopher wanders but not aimlessly, and the film never really questions his decisions or direction.But thats an issue for the book and perhaps the upcoming documentary. In telling the tale of McCandless, Penn steps into his own as a superbly gifted filmmaker; as an actor, hes clearly studied at the feet of giants, but he brings his own sensibilities and innovations to the film. The scant dialogue is naturalistic, and Penn leans heavily on the narration of McCandlesss sister, Carine (Jena Malone), and the vast, scenic sweep of nature for his images, which aptly convey the seduction wilderness had for McCandless and countless others.Cinematographer Eric Gautier deserves special mention for taking IMAX-caliber shots and helping Penn invest them with human emotion. Hes greatly aided by a radiant Emile Hirsch, who plays the immensely likable McCandless with gusto, sincerity and open eyes that cant be hidden underneath a scraggly beard or dramatic weight loss. The tribulations that Hirsch endured hunger, running Class-IV rapids with no experience , going days without washing add a realism not often seen in movies, and his performance amounts to something more than just acting.The cast is superb. Keener and Dierker convey both the pleasures and pain of a life unmoored, and Hal Holbrook gives a moving performance as a man who gains insight and something to live for in the twilight of his life. Even Vince Vaughn tones down his schtick to have a few great scenes as the good-natured Wayne. Only McCandlesss parents Walt and Billie (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) suffer in their portrayal not because of lack of acting ability (both are excellent), but simply because their scenes of domestic unrest are used as a prop to explain Chris McCandless flight and what kept him on the road.Into the Wild runs a little long and Eddie Vedders multiple song contributions are overused and overbearing, but these are small complaints in the face of such a fantastic and unique film. Penn sought out to bring us a story of strength and idealism, and he succeeds and tells it in stunning fashion by making one of the best films of the year. Though his tale ends in sadness and loss, Penn captures an unmistakeable beauty in the films final harrowing moments, and reminds us that for McCandless (and perhaps us), the journey is the destination.Arts & Entertainment writer Ted Alvarez can be reached at 748-2939 or Daily, Vail, Colorado

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