There may not be a backdrop more wasted on the eye of Sean Penn the director than the wilds of "Into the Wild," a film about Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who disappeared into an adventure in homelessness never to be seen alive by his family again. Though the film follows his self-searching journey across America and into Alaska, there is not a memorable shot of landscape in it. Penn frequently swoops and circumnavigates with his camera in trying, but like a good 20 minutes of the movie, the affectation seems superfluous in a story about a person who sought to give up superfluous affectation. Penn is great with actors, however, and as in all his previous directing efforts, his interest is with their characters. By refusing to paint McCandless one color, though, "Into the Wild" ends up being a very astute character study that is too long and overwrought to be great.
The movie is based on the 1992 book by Jon Krakauer, itself based on journals by McCandless. The facts according to Penn's screenplay are that McCandless gave up a family, admission to a good college and all his savings and, taking along a stack of books -- volumes by Jack London and Henry David Thoreau among them left on a meandering journey across the country with the goal of roughing it in Alaska. When we first meet Chris, he's just accepted his degree from Emory and is beaming with a mix of hope, pride and unusual for someone we expect to be immortalized before us self-righteousness. As he argues at a celebratory dinner with his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden), the tensions at first seem quite ordinary. They clash over Chris's car, except that it's the parents who want to get him a new one and it's Chris who feels the old Datsun is just fine. His younger sister (Jena Malone) seems to be the only one who picks up on the silence to come, and Penn elects her to be an unusual kind of narrator, reporting on the lack of her brother as we see him fleeing the world of paychecks and Social Security numbers.
Soon Chris has renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, walking and hitchhiking in bliss as he befriends several older people who try in varying degrees to adopt him. Penn divides the story in a number of ways, including metaphoric portions of a life cycle declared with titles. But in more general terms, the movie can be divided into two parts: the part in which Chris' adventure seems glamorous and the part when it begins to seem foolhardy. Most people, like the friendly farmer (Vince Vaughn) Chris works for and the hippie lady (Catherine Keener) who sees her own lost son in him, are encouraging even if they think his intentions are a little nutty. But then Chris meets Ron (Hal Holbrook), who finds him camped in the California desert near a nudist colony.
Ron, an elderly veteran who long ago lost his wife and child in an accident, is the first person Chris meets who pushes back against his charming naivete. Their brief but fertile friendship and parting are extremely moving. Tears welling as he drops Chris off for the last time, Ron tries to make a connection, but adolescence bucks. Chris dismisses the familial gesture with an abrupt retort: "I'll see you when I get back." He has no time. He's got to get where he wants to be. For the first time in the movie, you can't miss the fact that he might not know where that is.
Chris discovers there is a big difference between dreaming about the wild and slogging through it. He finds Alaska and doesn't have to go in very deep to be isolated. Milling week after week about an old bus he's turned into shelter, he sees beauty in a bit of scenery one day, and cruelty in it another. He sobs over the inedible, rotting carcass of a moose he wishes he hadn't shot, later watching a pack of hungry wolves gloat over it. Initially ecstatic diary entries on roughing it eventually give way to dire admissions of loneliness and fear. There's some visual hokum at the end mixed with conjecture about Chris' regrets possibly meant to please the surviving family. But the poetic license is hard to argue with. Penn has constructed as real and difficult a human as we can probably hope for in a mainstream movie, and that's encouragement enough to watch this journey from the safety of your multiplex. 147 min. S