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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 05:08 am

The enduring human spirit

Sean Penn produces a moving tribute to a young adventurer

Untitled Document If you were an outsider looking at Christopher McCandless, you’d think that he had it made. Raised in an upper-middle-class family and smart enough to attend the Ivy League college of his choice, this young man was bound for success — or, at least, the kind of success our culture rewards. Instead, McCandless chucked it all and set out to experience life in a way that many of us are too timid to contemplate. Sean Penn’s adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s account of McCandless’ life, Into the Wild, is a tribute to that young man’s spirit, which compelled him to give his savings to charity and set out on a journey across America. His goal was to one day live in Alaska and glean from his trip the sort of knowledge that comes only from shedding those things that insulate us from others and from our own potential. That he gained a new sense of understanding about himself and his life is a tribute to his perseverance.
On his odyssey, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) encounters one memorable character after another, each of whom shapes the young man in ways both subtle and obvious. Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, respectively), two refugees from the free-love movement of the ’60s, teach him self-reliance. Wheat farmer Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) encourages McCandless to foster his maverick spirit, and widowed retiree Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, giving the film’s most touching performance) shows the young man the power of forgiveness. While imparting their wisdom to McCandless, all get a renewed vigor for life as his sense of wonder and exuberance reminds them of their youth and the best parts of themselves. McCandless’ teachers couldn’t be more different from his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), whose entire lives are built on a series of deceptions that provides the foundation for not only their rocky marriage but also their son’s yearning for a life of honesty and self-reliance. His trek is a physical one that covers most of the western United States, but it’s nothing but a metaphor for his inner journey, which lies at the film’s core. The peace he seeks finally does come to him, but only after he’s shed not only the physical trappings of the society he doesn’t trust but also the anger, guilt, and mistrust he harbors. By the end, his soul is unburdened, and it is as pristine as the Alaskan wilderness that surrounds him. Penn’s direction is occasionally heavy-handed, but his guerrilla style of filming is perfectly suited to the subject matter. This is one of the great road films, and we get the sense of the unknown that should be present here, with the filmmaker’s loving presentation of the landscapes and the optimistic people who inhabit it. Although Penn’s style is assured, it’s Hirsch who commands our attention. Giving one of the best performances of the year, he commands our attention from the first frame and never lets us go. Often the only one onscreen, the actor goes out on the limb again and again, giving us a young man who is raw and eager to experience not only all the joy that life brings but its hardships as well. Hirsch is fearless and moving here, capturing McCandless’ spirit and honoring it with his own onscreen journey of self-exploration. Without his daring work, Into the Wild would have been nothing but a gorgeous travelogue instead of the moving tribute to the human spirit and the desire to be free that it is. 
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