The film opens with Chris, played believably by Emile Hirsch (Milk), being dropped off at the trialhead just outside of Healy on April 28, 1992 by Jim Gallien (played by himself). Packing in little more than a ten-pound bag of rice, a .22 caliber rifle, some ammo, a book of local flora and fauna, and some heady literature, Chris is woefully and intentionally under-provisioned for his Alaskan adventure. Believing that the only undiscovered wilderness left in the world is of one's own making, Chris purposefully declines bringing a map and compass or sufficient food.
Penn intercuts frequently between the final hundred-odd days of Chris's life spent bivouacked in the bus slowly starving to death on a scant diet of rice and poached game and the two proceeding years. After graduating from Emory University in May 1990, Chris donated his savings to charity and hit the open road, never to speak with his family again. Chris was apparently motivated by a deep anti-materialism born from his rejection of his parents' bourgeoisie lifestyle in favor of the naturalist asceticism of Henry David Thoreau's Walden and Leo Tolstoy's later writings.
Much of what's known about Chris's last two years comes from the recollections of people that encountered him during his travels, and it is through these encounters, some partially fictionalized, others wholly so, that Penn presents Chris's story prior to his final months at the bus. Of these encounters, the standouts occur with rubber-tramps Rainey and Jan, played by newcomer Brian Dierker and veteran Catherine Keener, and retired career-soldier Ron Franz, consummately played by the 82-year-old Hal Holbrook. Jan and Ron are both nursing their own deep wounds, and both seek to save Chris from himself yet are unable to penetrate his ascetic self-righteousness.
Like Jon Krakauer before him, Penn sees Chris as a doomed, romantic iconoclast. Accordingly, Penn shapes the information provided to conform to this vision. Factual details which would undercut his characterization of Chris are softened or ignored, while other fictions are added. Thus, though Penn shows us Chris' planned return route from the bus to the trailhead cut off by a seasonally-swollen river, he neglects to show that had Chris bothered to bring a map or simply scout up or down the river he'd have quickly found places he could cross (one only a quarter mile away). And, like Krakauer before him, Penn suggests that Chris' starvation was aggravated by unintentional poisoning despite the fact that the autopsy revealed no toxins in his system.
While the truth is probably that Chris simply remained at the bus past the point where he had the energy to make it out under his own power, by adding theories about inadvertent poisoning and impassible rivers undoing him, Penn and Krakauer make Chris's demise more relatable for their audiences.
Perhaps like Werner Herzog, Penn is ignoring "the truth of accountants" in favor of a search for "ecstatic truth" reachable only by "fabrication, imagination, and stylization." If you can accept this premise, then Into the Wild is not only entertaining and moving as fiction, but also meaningful for its deeper truths.
Optional subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.
With soaring cinematography by Eric Gautier (Christmas Tale), an anthem-like soundtrack for ascetic rebellion by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, strong acting, lyrical narration written by poet Sharon Olds, beautiful landscapes, and non-linear structure, Penn masterfully fills the 148-minute runtime. To screenwriter/director's Sean Penn's great credit as a storyteller, it's easy to come away from Into the Wild predominately feeling a wistful sympathy for Chris' Icarian search for truth.