An Ode to America's Spiritual Frontier

Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener play tramps who travel on wheels in
Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener play tramps who travel on wheels in "Into the Wild." (By Chuck Zlotnick -- Paramount Vantage Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
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, at once heir to the adventure writing of Jack London and Rockwell Kent and such generational touchstones as "On the Road" and "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance." Penn, who wrote and directed the screen version of "Into the Wild," has preserved the book's most iconic, even mystical values, while carefully whittling away Krakauer's multilayered narrative to focus on its confounding protagonist: Chris McCandless, the 24-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, whom filmgoers have come to know through 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. With this impressive performance, he vaults into an entirely higher league of acting, dominating the screen in a role that demands a carefully calibrated combination of innocence and guile. A complex character who was as elusive in life as he was polarizing in death, McCandless was many things: brilliant, naive, selfish, compassionate, brave but also foolish, manipulative and brutally honest.

Hirsch captures and embodies all of these qualities as he leads viewers through the final years of McCandless's life, years that started with a sudden, unexplained leave-taking of his Annandale family. He proceeded to reconstitute both his own identity and the notion of family, accumulating friends and, the movies suggests, spiritual wisdom on a journey that wended from Atlanta to Arizona to South Dakota to California, and finally to Alaska's Stampede Trail.

With McCandless (who called himself "Alexander Supertramp") in nearly every scene of "Into the Wild," Penn has succeeded in his first and most important job, which was casting the right actor. But just as crucial was to convey McCandless's world on screen, from the dizzying number of quintessentially American places he visited to what his family, Krakauer and Penn have speculated to be the state of his interior life. It's these details, both explicit and ineffable, that Penn has nailed to almost eerie perfection.

He reportedly took pains to film in 35 actual locations that McCandless went to. Such authenticity shows. "Into the Wild" pulses with the energy of a breakneck road trip through America. Particularly resonant are scenes in Slab City, a community of cheerful refuseniks in California, and earlier sequences in South Dakota, where McCandless hooked up with a grain thresher named Wayne Westerberg. Westerberg, played by Vince Vaughn in a performance devoid of his fast-talking comic mannerisms, came to become something of a brother figure to McCandless, whose letters back to South Dakota Penn reproduces with handwritten scrawls across the screen.

Those visual flourishes, as well as the occasional split screen and a haunting scene of a road-hardened McCandless confronting his imagined alter-ego in the window of a downtown Los Angeles bar, are deployed by Penn with unfussy, unforced assurance; even the book's fans will no doubt see the wisdom of his artistic liberties, including his addition of a narration from McCandless's sister, Carine (Jena Malone), who gives moral voice to those the prodigals leave behind (she also provides crucial expository information).

Although Penn, as well as the legions of mostly young people who have been drawn to McCandless's story of reinvention, clearly sympathizes with his protagonist, he doesn't seek to deify him. When McCandless meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) just before leaving for Alaska, the first word out of his mouth is a lie (he tells him he's from West Virginia).

Of such contradictions are the finest stories propelled, and Penn threads filmgoers through McCandless's complicated physical and psychological peregrinations with admirable clarity and tonal control. Like the book that inspired it, "Into the Wild" is many things at once: a rapturous travelogue through some of the country's most majestic locales; a rip-roaring tale of derring-do (Hirsch performed his own stunts, including a perilous kayak trip down Colorado River rapids); an inspiring story of uncompromising self-discovery; a shattering story of loneliness and death; and finally a serene, even ecstatic meditation on the meaning of love and, by extension, life itself. If Penn has polarized audiences in his life off-screen, "Into the Wild" presents a welcome opportunity for reconciliation. It has equal appeal to viewers looking for an old-fashioned movie epic and those in search of a smaller, more contemplative art film.

Perhaps the most moving aspect of "Into the Wild" is that, even though it celebrates McCandless's determined search for his own morally rigorous brand of integrity, it's really about community. Viewers are left not only with a vivid impression of a fierce individualist, but with a wistful evocation of the community he forged in his travels. In addition to Vaughn, Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker deliver memorable portrayals of Jan Burres and her fictionalized companion Rainey -- two "rubber tramps" (so called because they travel on wheels). Most indelible of all is Holbrook as Franz, who in one of many heartbreaking scenes offers to adopt McCandless.

It's in these characters, and the vividly evoked habitats that help define them, that "Into the Wild" becomes 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 marginalizes those who embody its most iconoclastic values, and how quickly and ruthlessly it marginalizes its dharma bums and dropouts, its dissidents and disobedient sons.

It's a subject that Penn himself might know a bit about. But rather than a social indictment, as might have been expected, he's used Krakauer's text and his own tempestuous love affair with his country to create a lyrical ode to its deepest capacity for redemption. "Into the Wild" is a big, beautiful picture, all the more so for inviting everyone, regardless of political position or philosophical bent, to see themselves.

Into the Wild (140 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for profanity and some nudity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company