Fresh from the Toronto International Film Festival comes the true story of a young man who may have taken On the Road a bit too seriously. Based on the Jon Krakauer novel of the same name Into the Wild stars Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless, an idealistic honors grad from Emory University who adopts the hobo name Alexander Supertramp and drops out of society.
For two hours and twenty minutes or so we follow Chris as he makes his way across America on his journey to solitude in Alaska. He picks up odd jobs, lives off the land, hitches a ride with nomadic hippies and even rides the rails. The experience of watching Into the Wild is much like the trip itself—it can be confounding, frustrating and occasionally boring—but I think that is director Sean Penn’s point. As a filmmaker he has never been shy about taking his time to tell the story, and here he seems to want to place us on the road with Chris. It’s a hypnotic journey and one that draws you in, maintaining interest even during the more mundane bits.
Penn has captured the rhythms of the road, and more importantly, the cadences of an itinerant life. It’s the journey that matters, and Into the Wild makes the most of the road motif, introducing us to interesting characters at every stop. There are love-sick flower children, Norwegian travelers and a charismatic, but shady farm owner. Most affecting of all is the last person he meets before he disappears into the rugged Alaskan wild, a lonely older man (Hal Holbrook) who “adopts” him for a time.
Holbrook turns in a magnificent performance, one tempered with wisdom, gentleness and a touch of desperation. The 82-year-old actor hands in one of the best supporting roles on film this year, but it might be Hirsch’s performance that is the most remarkable.
As Chris he takes a character that to my eyes isn’t immediately likeable. He’s pretentious, selfish and arrogant, but Hirsch makes him compelling—I won’t say likeable—and interesting to watch for the film’s long running time.
Into the Wild borders on self-importance, more than once spouting ideas about how “material things cut Chris off from the truth of his existence” but Penn keeps a steady hand and unerringly pulls the film back from the brink every time it feels like it is treading in waters too philosophically deep or becoming too preachy. It’s a road trip, but also a head trip and one worth taking.