Christopher McCandless was a fiercely idealistic young man who yearned to be free. He read Henry David Thoreau and Jack London with an almost religious zeal. He was a solitary wanderer in a world rapidly losing touch with its elemental truths. Yet McCandless died alone in the Alaskan outback at the age of 24 in 1992.
Disgusted with what he saw as a hypocritical, largely soulless society -- exemplified by his conventionally successful yet superficial father -- McCandless gave his $25,000 savings to charity, burned the cash in his wallet, abandon his car and set forth on an adventure throughout the American West and beyond. Sean Penn's engrossing adaptation of Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild tells the true story of the extraordinary and often naive McCandless (Emile Hirsch, who was robbed of an Oscar nomination). Penn's screenplay largely focuses on final months before McCandless' death, a period in which the charming wanderer befriended various drifters and small-town folk (ably played by Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and a fragile, compelling Hal Holbrook, among others), some of whom the director invents. Penn also employs a variety of stylistic devices -- immersive cinematography, a soundtrack featuring Eddie Vedder, jump cuts, split screens and more -- to lovingly re-create the short life of a young man whose restless spirit couldn't be contained. Hirsch, a gifted actor who brings an essential humanity to the role, is mesmerizing as McCandless, whose bittersweet story is brought to the screen with grace and affection. This two-disc DVD set includes a plethora of extras, but a commentary track from Penn is curiously absent. Grade: A-
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