John “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless fulfilled his duty to society and graduated from Emory University in 1990. He didn’t feel any obligation to his family or anybody else for that matter once he received his diploma. Rejecting any kind of a normal life by doing things that were expected of him, he set off on a journey that would have him interact with all walks of life and find the truth he was looking for.
John McCandless (Emile Hirsch) has left his apartment that he inhabited during college. He has changed his name to Alexander Supertramp. He drives his car until he hits Arizona. There he leaves his car and burns his money. He travels from place to place. He encounters hippies Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian Dieker). He meets Wayne (Vince Vaughn) and works for him. He is picked up by Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) and teaches him that old dogs can learn new tricks. All of this leads up to his “Great Alaska Adventure.” John finds a bus and lives his last months in it. As the last couple of weeks of his life give him clarity, he slowly dies of starvation due to his eating of a poisonous plant.
The story of John McCandless is from the bestselling novel by John Krakauer. Director Sean Penn adapted it for the screen. Simply put, it is about a man trying to find the meaning in life. He has rejected all material things and feels that the answers lie in adventures, not in your relationships. This stems from his parents volatile relationship growing up and their deceit towards him and his sister. He doesn’t show his pain on the outside but you can feel it still the same. This is due to the way he handles himself when he meets new people. Without Emile Hirsch’s performance this wouldn’t have been possible. His bright smile has an emptiness to it. His eyes are dark even when he is laughing. And the lengths he went to in regards to his weight show his dedication. Two other such performances come to mind, Christian Bale in The Machinist and Matt Damon in Courage Under Fire. It is crippling to see his ribs underneath his skin and the constant tightening of the belt as he fails to find food in the wilderness. It makes your stomach grumble for him. Hal Holbrook’s Ron Franz is the last person Chris has contact with. While Chris teaches him that he can still get out there despite his age, Ron teaches Chris that he can forgive. He gives Chris a sense of family. Holbrook is restrained with his affection for Chris and doesn’t really come out with it until Chris leaves him. Anything more than that would have the performance feel forced. Chris travels all over the country and the locations couldn’t be more picturesque. There is the heat and flatness of the desert in Arizona, to the fields in South Dakota, and the greenness in Alaska. Alaska is beautiful as it transitions from Winter to Spring. It is Chris’s friend but also his enemy.
The film lagged as Chris traveled from place to place. It is intended to showcase Chris’s carefree attitude and that he was not in a hurry. But it fails to keep your attention and makes you wonder when he will meet someone new.
Into the Wild is actor Sean Penn’s directorial debut. It is a heavy subject with an unhappy ending. He does justice to the true story of a man trying to find his way in life. Emile Hirsch and Hal Holbrook give outstanding performances as John McCandless and the last person he has a relationship with.