Penn's Haunting Journey 'Into the Wild'

Emile Hirsch transforms himself as Chris McCandless, who heads west to Alaska in Sean Penn's
Emile Hirsch transforms himself as Chris McCandless, who heads west to Alaska in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." (By Chuck Zlotnick)

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Sean Penn sings a powerful and poetic hymn to America with "Into the Wild," his sweeping, sensitive and deeply affecting adaptation of Jon Krakauer's best-selling book.

When the book was published in 1996, it became an instant classic of American literary nonfiction. Penn, who wrote and directed the screen version, has preserved the book's most iconic, even mysti cal, values while carefully whittling away Krakauer's multi-layered narrative to focus on its confounding protagonist: Chris McCandless, the 23-year-old recent college graduate who in 1992, after two years of tramping through the American West, embarked on a 113-day sojourn in the Alaska backcountry that ended in his death.

Emile Hirsch, who had accomplished performances in "Lords of Dogtown" and "Alpha Dog," plays McCandless, putting himself through the kind of punishing physical challenges and transformations Robert De Niro has made famous. A complex character who was as elusive in life as he was polarizing in death, McCandless was many things: brilliant, naive, selfish, compassionate and brave but also foolish, manipulative and brutally honest.

Hirsch captures and embodies all those qualities as he portrays McCandless's sudden, unexplained leave-taking of his Annandale family and his reconstitution of both his own identity and the notion of family. It's a journey that wends from Atlanta to Arizona to South Dakota to California, and finally to Alaska's Stampede Trail.

"Into the Wild" is far more than the story of an idealistic, doomed young man and instead turns into a portrait of an alternative America, that scruffy, feisty frontier populated by outlaws and vagabonds and spiritual seekers. More obliquely, it's a depiction of how America quickly and ruthlessly marginalizes its dharma bums and dropouts, its dissidents and disobedient sons.

It's a big, beautiful picture, all the more so for inviting everyone, regardless of political position or philosophical bent, to see themselves.

-- Ann Hornaday

Into the Wild R, 140 minutes Contains profanity and nudity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, AMC Loews Georgetown and Landmark's E Street Cinema. Into the Wild R, 140 minutes Contains profanity and nudity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, AMC Loews Georgetown and Landmark's E Street Cinema.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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