"Into the Wild" appears to come from a different era of filmmaking. It's an exploratory piece about the fires within the human spirit, while also following the descent of a young man trapped in his own freedom, captured in a loose, almost experimental fashion - a film with 70's integrity hoping to enchant modern appetites.
Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a bright college graduate about to embark on the journey of adulthood. Instead of a life that would require a job, money, and the approval of his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay harden), Chris sent his savings to charity, packed up minimal belongings, and decided to travel around America on foot, all in an attempt to find the Thoreau experience he craved, with his final destination being Alaska and the ultimate test of freedom. Throughout the two-year journey, Chris interacts with fellow travelers and lonely souls that shape his life, but it's his troubling time in Alaska where the yearning and whimsy took a disastrous turn.
Adapted from Jon Krakauer's best-selling account of Chris's expedition, writer/director Sean Penn has elected to shun more traditional dramatic impulses to open up "Wild" as a purely sensory experience. This is a film of vast beauty and blinding brightness, and lets Mother Nature take top billing over the rest of the actors. Chris's story of social exclusion and rejection of materialism almost seems an afterthought when faced with the sheer beauty of the land the character crosses. Photographed with lavish clarity and golden-hued warmth by Eric Gautier, "Wild" is first and foremost a picture about the textures of the Earth and that desire buried deep down in some of us to become one with nature, as if to inhabit a romanticized symbiosis that existed centuries ago.
Running 150 minutes, "Wild" churns slowly as it trails Chris, drinking in the vistas; at the same time, taking intimate inventory of his deteriorating psychological standing as time passes. The argument that Penn celebrates Chris's questionable decisions could easily be substantiated, but closer inspection reveals the director aching to find the heart of Chris and the remarkable drive that kept him on a path toward this destiny of spiritual release, eventually costing him his life in 1992 (a mixture of stupidity, trauma, and starvation finally broke his spirit).
Embodied with amazing physicality by Hirsch (pitch-perfect in the role...that is, until he opens his mouth), Penn conceives of Chris as a soldier of honor, crossing the land with wide-eyed pride, taking advantage of his newfound freedom by embracing elements of life he neglected before. "Wild" is an episodic film in that respect, watching Chris befriend a fellow big-hearted nomad (played by Catherine Keener), law-bending employer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely man (Hal Holbrook, offering masterful acting) at the Salton Sea who looks to Chris as the son he never had. The picture jumps spastically around in time, but Penn attends to his themes nicely, erecting an overall ambiance of adventure and enlightenment as Chris revels in his love affair with the elements.
Of course, at this length, "Wild" does spin it wheels, hitting some points with perhaps too much enthusiasm. There's also a strange artistic choice to have Hirsch break the fourth wall during several junctures in the story. However, it's hard to disregard Penn's ambitious reach and the visceral kick of Chris's fantasy voyage. "Into the Wild" is a literal free spirit of a motion picture, but it also remains a poignant, tragic, and unforgettable tale of misplaced human desire.
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