Into the Wild

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Telluride Film Festival

SAN FRANCISCO -- The romance of the open road has proved irresistible to adventurous young men from Jack London to Jack Kerouac and, more recently, Christopher McCandless, a troubled college grad who in the early 1990s burned his cash, junked his car and disappeared into the north Alaskan territories, where he died an agonizing death from starvation, alone.

Writer-director Sean Penn's "Into the Wild," based on Jon Krakauer's book, is an extravagantly ambitious, unfocused film that chronicles this tragic episode with flights of brilliance, self-indulgence and thrilling nature cinematography.

"Wild" has appeal for young audiences and baby boomers alike. Although Penn has an uneven track record as a director, his reputation as an actor, coupled with exciting outdoor adventure sequences, should spell respectable boxoffice. Paramount Vantage releases the film domestically Sept. 21.

McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a bright loner, flees a fractious home headed by a distant, raging father (an underused William Hurt) and an alcoholic mother (Marcia Gay Harden). After graduating from Emory, he takes off on his cross-country odyssey without telling anyone. When he reaches Alaska, he camps in an abandoned bus that will become his tomb, hunts animals for food and memorializes his experiences in a journal, a course of events vividly realized in the film.

Penn flashes back and forth in time with alacrity, aided by seamless transitions from editor Jay Cassidy, his frequent collaborator. Eric Gautier's astounding cinematography is visceral whether he is shooting the adrenaline rush of running the rapids, the serenity of limitless Western vistas or the punishing stillness of the wilderness.

Skillfully constructed, the film is hampered by a reliance on McCandless' pretentious, facile ruminations. Although he occasionally shows him in an unflattering light, Penn doesn't question whether McCandless' anti-materialist, "absolute truth/freedom through nature" creed is a cover story for running away from responsibility and himself, nor does he probe into why he pursues the extreme isolation that costs him his life.

While the material seems to warrant understated, direct storytelling, along the lines of Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man," Penn opts for epic proportions and clutters his narrative with gimmicks. For the most part, it works. What's missing is the perspective and insight that would illuminated the inner dimensions of a driven young man who is preachy and downright irritating. It's unclear if it's a function of the screenplay, the callowness of the character or a flat lead performance, but McCandless remains opaque, so the movie is saddled with a cipher at its center.

Hirsch doesn't project the magnetism that would give credence to McCandless' supposed liberating effect on the people he encounters. As he heals the marital strife of a hippie couple (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker), expands the horizons of a lonely widower (Hal Holbrook) and steals the heart of a shy singer (Kristen Stewart), one wonders if he's a legend in his own mind. Vince Vaughn, playing a rowdy combine worker, gives the film a welcome jolt of humor that helps relieve the earnestness.

McCandless wouldn't be the first young man to mythologize himself or imagine he's the star of his own movie, which, ironically, he has become. It's difficult to stifle the impulse to chide, "Oh, grow up," but he never had that chance.

INTO THE WILD
Paramount Vantage
Paramount Vantage and River Road Entertainment present a Square One C.I.H./Linson Film production
Screenwriter-director: Sean Penn
Producers: Sean Penn, Art Linson, Bob Pohlad
Executive producers: John J. Kelly, Frank Hildebrand, David Blocker
Director of photography: Eric Gautier
Production designer: Derek R. Hill
Music: Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Cast:
Christopher: Emile Hirsch
Billie: Marcia Gay Harden
Walt: William Hurt
Ron: Hal Holbrook
Jan: Catherine Keener
Carine: Jena Malone
Tracy: Kristen Stewart
Wayne: Vince Vaughn
Rainey: Brian Dierker
Running time -- 147 minutes
MPAA rating: R
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