- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

Chris McCandless‘ story has been divisive ever since it first broke. It’s not hard to form strong opinions of an intelligent, idealistic young man who, shortly after his college graduation, decided to donate his savings to charity, leave behind his well-to-do East Coast family and venture alone and rather unprepared into the Alaskan wilderness — wilderness that claimed his life in 1992.

The public has both hailed Mr. McCandless as a noble adventurer and damned him as an arrogant fool. He’s spurred heated debates loaded with questions that have no easy answers: Was the man suicidal? (He had no map or ax.) Was he a free spirit? (He read Thoreau and Tolstoy.) Did he set a poor example for others similarly seeking refuge from modern-day life? (He did make some reckless decisions.)

Some of the most widely read thoughts on the young man’s pilgrimage came from “Into Thin Air” author Jon Krakauer, whose 1996 account of Mr. McCandless’ journey, “Into the Wild,” became a best-seller. Mr. Krakauer, a bold outdoorsman himself, wove his own near-fatal experiences in nature into the book to show he (at least partly) identified with and understood his subject — but that doesn’t mean his readers did.

The controversy will no doubt continue as moviegoers discover or rediscover this haunting tale through Sean Penn’s cinematic adaptation of the Krakauer book — although this time, the debate may focus more on the merits of Mr. Penn’s project than on Mr. McCandless’ character.

To some, the young man’s charisma and heart (which come through on screen thanks in large part to the portrayal by Emile Hirsch), the visual dazzle that Mr. Penn and director of photography Eric Gautier capture in America’s wilds, and the romanticism of the protagonist’s travels will shine. Perhaps they’ll even see Mr. McCandless in a heroic light.

To others, like this reviewer, the film’s strengths are overshadowed by a hollow, elegiac voice-over, delivered by Jena Malone as Chris’ sister, Carine. It’s a poor choice on the part of Mr. Penn: Carine is not a major player in the book and isn’t fleshed out enough here for us to trust her voice, which just doesn’t justify the literary tone with which poet Sharon Olds has tried to imbue it.

Mr. Penn must’ve missed the part in his own script where Carine says, “Chris was writing his story, and it had to be Chris who would tell it.”

Perhaps the voice-over is the director’s way of filling the void left by the absence of Mr. Krakauer’s narrative voice, or a means of making the main character more sympathetic, or a crutch that helps Mr. Penn avoid delving into the psyche of a man who chose a life with the bears over a promising future.

The filmmaker also reduces certain elements of the original story to cinematic cliches, including Chris McCandless’ family woes and his encounters with a fiery young lady who fancies him.

This said, portions of Mr. Penn’s script are quite lovely, and he draws poignant performances from his cast members. Particularly charming is the camaraderie between Mr. McCandless and the colorful characters he meets while hitchhiking to Alaska. The film’s portrayal of his relationship with elderly loner Ron Franz (the inimitable Hal Holbrook) is especially affecting, while Catherine Keener and Vince Vaughn add spark as a brokenhearted hippie and a boisterous farmer, respectively.

Ultimately, the film may serve as a better measure of Mr. Hirsch (some industry insiders have dubbed this his breakthrough role) than of the young man who created all the fuss in the first place.

**1/2

TITLE: “Into the Wild”

RATING: R (language and some nudity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Sean Penn. Based on the book by Jon Krakauer.

RUNNING TIME: 153 minutes

WEB SITE: www.intothewild.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS.

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