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A movie directed by Sean Penn

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  • Nov 15, 2010
  • by
Let me come right and admit that I dislike Sean Penn a great deal. His politics are infantile, silly and represent Hollywood's penchant for knee-jerk liberalism at its worst. His trips to Iraq are an embarrassment.

But let me also admit that he truly is an artist to be reckoned with. From his wonderful performances in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH through is Oscar-winning work on MYSTIC RIVER, he has proven himself a unique talent. And now his skills as a director cannot be overlooked either. His past efforts as a director had merit, but with films like THE PLEDGE, he allowed himself an indulgent pace, and the movies meandered a bit. They still showed skill…but only now, with INTO THE WILD, can he truly be called a director of importance.

Based on the terrific book from Jon Krakauer (who also wrote the MUST READ "Into Thin Air"), INTO THE WILD follows the true-story of Chris McCandless, a young man who drops out of life in a serious, disturbed way.

McCandless (Emile H irsch) comes from a family of privilege. Raised in the south, we see him graduating from prestigious Emory College, and telling his folks he's thinking of Harvard Law. He clearly has a lot of issues with his folks and their materialism…but at first blush, he seems like little more than an upstart college kid who was raised in a cushy enough life to be able to readily shower disdain on money & materialism. A poor kid would never do this. He seems very close to his younger sister (Jena Malone), as they are united in their disregard for their parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt).

Turns out, Chris is going to drop out of their lives completely. He gives away all his money and sets out on the road with his beat-up car, eager to "see America" and to live off the land (although frankly, living off the land for him seems to require lots of begging for money, taking handouts and eventually, when his car is trashed, accepting rides). He even changes his name to Alexander Supertramp. He's a drop-out on a mission to erase his past life as well. He NEVER touches base with his family, even his beloved sister.

Eventually, he becomes more and more eager to tear himself away from the trappings of civilization, and he goes to the wilderness of Alaska, IN THE WINTER to live on his own. He has almost no survival skills, and if not for stumbling upon an abandoned bus that had obviously once been used as a campsite, he probably would have died in a day or two. As it is, his time in Alaska stretches on for weeks or months, and that's all I want to tell you, in case you didn't know how this story turns out.

Chris (or Alex) is a supremely annoying character to me. I'm a man in my 40s with kids of my own, and so naturally I bristle at his cavalier hatred for his parents. And I'm also annoyed at his thoughts on dropping out, which as I said seemed to involve mooching off of others. As though our society owed it to him to support his noble desire to have no possessions, responsibilities, etc. etc.

But here's the surprising thing…as much as part of me disliked this young man and his questionable mission, I was drawn deeper and deeper into caring about what happened to him nonetheless. Penn, and especially his young star, Emilie Hirsch, do a masterful job over the films 2.5 hour running time of making you empathize with this guy.

As we learn more about his relationship with his parents, we see that while he might be over-reacting, he does have legitimate gripes that go deeper than we thought at first. He's trying to erase his identify, because it's been built on a lie in the first place. He truly wants to strip away anything that reminds him of them and their world. At first, just distance helps…but he begins to see that he himself needs to be laid bare. He has an almost primal need, not to commune with nature, but to use that communion as a way of reducing him to just basic needs for food and shelter. And at the end of the film, when we see that he has finally succeeded and has finally come full circle, it's a shattering moment. Only then do we see the skill with which Penn (who also wrote the script) and Hirsch have led us. We thought we knew what McCandless wanted from his journey…but what he came to was something different indeed.

Most of the movie deals with McCandless' encounters with the various people he meets. He spends time working on a wheat harvesting crew run by Vince Vaughan. He lives for several months with Catherine Keener and her husband in a desert in Arizona. And most touchingly, he befriends a old veteran played by Hal Holbrook. It's nice to see Vaughan play a normal guy at more or less a normal level of energy, rather than his over-the-top antic-ness. But it is Keener and Holbrook who threaten to steal the show. Keener plays a "hippie" who has dropped out of life to get away from a terrible sadness of her own. She has a burden she carries that makes her both love McCandless like a mother AND to understand the grief McCandless's mother must be going through. She infuses her character with sadness and toughness in equal measure. It's an almost perfect role for Keener, who has an almost unique quality to her…one of smarts, sexiness, sadness and empathy. I think there's a fair chance she'll be nominated for an Oscar. An almost slam-dunk Oscar nomination for Hal Holbrook, however. It feels like years since I've seen him in anything, and the 20 minutes or so he is in this movie are as quietly powerful as any 20 minutes I've seen this year. His character has shut off from the world and lived in insulated sadness for decades. McCandless comes into his life and shows him that the world still has something to offer him. Holbrook responds and begins to open up. He takes on physical tasks he didn't dare before. But he also begins to love the young man who has brought him this renewal…and he knows this kid is going to leave soon and never be seen again. Holbrook is masterful in his scenes, and his final few moments are quite powerful.

Another aspect of this movie to be savored is the sheer enjoyment of the beautiful American scenery. We're taken all over the western half of our nation, and also to Alaska, and Penn allows plenty of time to take in the sights. What a beautiful country the US is!!

The movie is not perfect. Sometimes Hirsch relies a little too much on just smiling beatifically at people, and the almost reverent response they have towards him is a bit much. He does become a character that the viewer cares about…but sometimes Penn plays him off as too "pure." He seems to have no interest in sex, for example…and this interesting aspect of his character is left unexplored and unexplained. (Also, I got tired of Eddie Vedder's songs…his diction is so bad, it just sounded like whining. And this is from a guy who sorta likes Pearl Jam.)

This is a broadly sweeping movie about a very tiny subject…one troubled man whose journey of self-discovery led him in unexpected ways. In the great scheme of life, it isn't terribly important. Yet it reminds us that the human heart is unfathomable, that reactions aren't predictable AND most importantly, that we can grow and learn and come to accept what life has dealt us. The movie is sad, yet quite uplifting. It is a movie that finds forgiveness and redemption in unexpected places.

So, it is with some chagrin that I must say I highly recommend this effort from Sean Penn

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November 16, 2010
Your review is a tour de force (hope I said that right) I truly found this movie quite brilliant. Thanks for sharing this sweet essay and review!
More Into the Wild reviews
Quick Tip by . June 25, 2010
This movie makes my soul ache. It's so gorgeous. One of my all-time favorites.
Quick Tip by . December 09, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
A powerful film about the choices we face living in modern society & about one young man's attempt to break free with tragic results.
Quick Tip by . September 17, 2009
This made me want to hop on the open road & go on an adventure- the story was reminiscent of Buddha, leaving luxury to pursue something more
Quick Tip by . September 17, 2009
Phenomenal film with an amazing plot, cast, and soundtrack. Really tugs at your heart strings and makes you reevaluate life.
review by . June 27, 2009
When Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduated from college, he had one goal in life - to finally break away from his unhappy family and the constraints of society in general and live off the land in Alaska. The episodic film flashes back and forth between Chris' adventures in Alaska and the months leading up to it, focusing on the people who befriended him - including an aging hippie couple and a lonely, old man (well-played by the venerable Hal Holbrook).       Based on a true …
review by . February 06, 2009
Having recently completed Jon Krakauer's arguably most famous book, "Into Thin Air," about the Everest disaster, I was very eager to read more from this journalist-cum-book writer. I'm very glad to say that "Into the Wild" did not disappoint.      Krakauer crafts a very interesting story, splicing together as much of his protagonist's final journey as possible, and he is remarkably detailed considering this boy, Chris McCandless, roamed about for more than a year and never stayed …
review by . May 03, 2008
Pros: acting above all, scenery, production, soundtrack     Cons: none     The Bottom Line: "Society, have mercy on me.   I hope you're not angry, if I disagree.   Society, crazy indeed.   I hope you're not lonely...   without me.   ~ Eddie Vedder (Into the Wild)      After reading Jon Krakauer’s book, I hesitated watching this movie. I wondered if it would explain some things I questioned …
review by . March 14, 2008
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Acting, scenery      Cons: Story is weak or weakly told, still not sure which      The Bottom Line: Take a look at the cast list, if you like any of them then the film won't be a waste. Otherwise consider it carefully, starving isn't fun to watch.      Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie''s plot. Into the Wild’s narrative is like a line graph of Enron’s final month except that …
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I've got my own site,, on which I'm posting my reviews. I am 46 years old, married 25 years, two kids (23 & 18) and currently work in accounting/finance. I spent 15 years … more
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About this movie


Jon Krakauer's bestselling nonfiction book about the life of Chris McCandless is finally brought to the big screen in INTO THE WILD. Directed by Sean Penn, the film opens in 1992, when Chris (Emile Hirsh) is a promising college graduate. Shortly after graduation, Chris gives his life savings to charity, burns all of his identification, and begins hitchhiking across America, his ultimate goal being Alaska. Citing passages from his heroes, Thoreau and Jack London, he is determined to escape society and get back to nature. He blows from town to town like a tumbleweed, hopping trains, camping with aging hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), working briefly with a farmer (Vince Vaughan), and befriending a widowed leather worker (Hal Holbrook). He revels in his newfound freedom, but meanwhile, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) have no idea where he is, and are sick with worry. While their relationship with Chris was already troubled, they are nonetheless devastated by his disappearance. ...

Into the Wild is a 2007  American drama film based on the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer about the adventures of Christopher McCandless. It was directed by Sean Penn, who also wrote the screenplay, and stars Emile Hirsch, William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, Vince Vaughn, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Stewart, and Hal Holbrook. It premiered during the second edition of the Rome Film Feast. The film ...
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Director: Sean Penn
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 2007, September 21, 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Sean Penn
DVD Release Date: March 04, 2008
Runtime: 2hrs 27min
Studio: Paramount Pictures
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