On April 28, 1992, a scraggly 24-year-old tramp and adventurer from suburban Virginia named Christopher McCandless walked into the Alaskan wilderness with little more than the bag on his back and was never heard from again. Four months later, his decomposed body was discovered wrapped in a sleeping bag in an abandoned school bus, the unfortunate result of starvation and excessive hubris. These events were brilliantly chronicled in 1996 by Jon Krakauer in his bestselling book Into the Wild
, which spun McCandless’ life of solitude into a tragedy of family bitterness and misplaced longing. Based solely on the testimony of friends, family, and fellow wanderers and the boy’s own scattered journal entries, Krakauer’s book was permeated by a sense of sadness and distance that left readers with the unsettling feeling that the haunted life and solitary death of Christopher McCandless would remain forever unknowable. Unfortunately, an unknowable character makes for a stubborn film protagonist, so Into the Wild
, the movie, was always going to be a tough sell. And though Penn has conjured up a beautifully acted, visually bracing film that captures all the romantic energy and freedom of a life spent outside the bounds of society, somewhere along the way he misplaced that melancholy that made McCandless’ story so devastating. Krakauer’s hero was the mystery at the center of his own narrative – a ghost, a vacuum into which the author poured his own psychological speculations and the impressions of others. Penn’s McCandless (a wiry Hirsch), on the other hand, is a 21st century Hollywood hero, armed with a mouthful of self-help platitudes about following your heart and living life to the fullest but possessing precious little mystery. He travels the American West like a modern-day Odysseus, commiserating with fellow drifters and lost souls (including an excellent Holbrook and a wired Vaughn, doing his patented thousand-words-a-minute routine), taking in vast landscapes, and basking in the company of caribou, all of which Penn shoots with a sympathetic and painterly eye. But the character never really comes alive, and I walked away from Into the Wild
feeling that Penn was too in love with the idea of Christopher McCandless the free-spirited hero to excavate the soul of Christopher McCandless the lost man. Maybe he was afraid to think there might actually be a black heart at the center of our great Kerouac myth.