By now, the story of Christopher McCandless – the Emory University graduate from an upper-middle-class family who donated his life’s savings to a charity and set out on a personal expedition into the Alaskan wilderness – is widely known. Jon Krakauer compiled the provoking, intimate tale into the non-fiction book “Into the Wild,” which Sean Penn had the foresight to adapt to film.

Julie Rowe
(COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT)

There is no denying the basic strength of this story and the ideas it provokes. But as Penn’s “Into the Wild” proves, that doesn’t mean its transition to film is that simple.

The film opens with a series of montages of the starkly beautiful Alaskan wilderness. Accompanied by music from Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, whose score is honorably intentioned but borderline annoying, we see clips of Chris (Emile Hirsch, “Alpha Dog”), contemplative and serene in his natural environment.

The film characterizes Chris’s relationship with his parents as tense and adversarial. Upon graduating from college, his father (William Hurt, “A History of Violence”), mother (Marcia Gay Harden, “Mystic River”) and sister (Jena Malone, “Donnie Darko”) come to visit him in Atlanta, offering to buy him a new car as a graduation gift. “Things, things, things!” he replies incredulously, and thus begins the journey that gives the film its title.

Chris burns his Social Security card and his remaining money, heading westward toward Alaska. One of his first encounters is a violent flash flood, leaving his old, yellow Datsun in shambles. Undeterred, he picks up his backpack and continues westward, forging strong bonds with a pair of hippies who travel by RV, a mill operator named Wayne (Vince Vaughn, “The Break-Up”) and an old man named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, TV’s “Evening Shade”).

The film’s chief strength is in its actors. Hirsch is an asset, not only in his performance but in bringing stability to the jumbled narrative, which I’ll get to in a second. Vaughn proves his capabilities as an actor beyond the confines of the buddy comedy, easing tangible spirit and fun to the movie. Holbrook brings an emotional authenticity to the picture’s indistinct later section, and Hurt and Harden make an impression in relatively small roles.

At every stop along his journey, there are various displays of human connection all around Chris. Sometimes you see the fractured pieces of relationships; sometimes you see how the kindred spirit between people is essential to life. All of these important connections surrounding an emotionally isolated Chris culminate in a final awakening late in the film.

The movie’s power is evident in these simple thematic points, but writer-director Penn’s narrative system needlessly complicates the story. Jumping back and forth between Chris’s base camp on an abandoned bus in Alaska and his journey toward Alaska, the narrative burden is shared between his sister (in the form of a voiceover) and the personal moments Chris has with himself that are better conveyed on paper than on screen. In a movie that’s often intensely visual, the segments that insist on telling rather than showing feel out of place.

Deeply emotional at times, the movie could bring the audience to tears – and had it been properly executed, it no doubt would have. The struggle to escape the materialism and misguided values that plague daily life has the ability to resonate with any spectator, but “Into the Wild” never quite captures the essence of McCandless’s journey.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Into the Wild

At the State Theater

Paramount

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