• James Rutherford

‘Into the Wild’: Sean Penn’s Stirring Depiction of Chris McCandless’ Epic Journey of Enlightenment


Movie poster for the film Into the Wild starring Emile Hirsch

“Into the Wild” (2007) is Sean Penn’s fourth foray behind the lens as feature-length director, focusing here on the true story of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a top collegiate student and athlete who furtively departed from his home in Georgia to travel America between 1990 and 1992.


The film opens with McCandless’ arrival to a remote Alaskan site in 1992, where he would set camp at the location of an abandoned Fairbanks city bus he would soon call home. The storyline then flashes backward to McCandless’ graduation from Emory University two years prior, and follows as his fierce rejection of societal norms inspires him to bequeath all earthly possessions and escape from his parents’ authority—hitting the open road on a journey of personal awakening and adventurism.


Traversing the nation from Nevada to South Dakota, Mexico and northward to California, McCandless embraces a life of sparse subsistence while intermittently clambering to earn funds for his ultimate destination: the great northern wilds of Alaska. Many of the film’s highlights involve his encounters and escapades with a variety of well-intentioned individuals he chances upon, and with whom he develops meaningful friendships and strong emotional bonds.


Ultimately the film, based on the best-selling novel by Jon Krakauer, finds McCandless fulfilling his personal dream of living off the land in remote Alaska, though a series of poor decisions and dwindling supplies eventually begin to plague him. Following his journal entries from that time period, we learn of his increasing despair as his hard-fought freedom soon begins to deteriorate, and his vulnerability all-too-quickly becomes a matter of mortal uncertainty.


"Into the Wild" is an engrossing and stirring affair, and Penn does both McCandless and Krakauer great service in fleshing out McCandless’s story in full-bodied and profoundly dynamic fashion. Given a major boost by Eddie Vedder's soulful soundtrack contributions, it’s an inspired, emotionally charged and exhilarating portraiture of one man’s impassioned pursuit of personal freedom and ultimately, his own transcendence.

 

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