..Victoria Barkley..

McClueless or McFearless?

A review of the Sean Penn movie, Into The Wild

A shadowy scene flickers upon a mother; Billie McCandless (Marcia Gay Harden) startled awake by a dream of her son's voice. Was it a message from the other side in confirmation of his survival, or just a broken-hearted parent's wish fulfillment to re-connect with her missing boy through an auditory hallucination?

Sean Penn's screen adaptation of Jon Krakauer's 1996 book Into The Wild follows Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), taking off on another one of his often unannounced adventures, shortly after his 1990 college graduation.

This time, he is leaving for good without telling anyone. Shedding all ties to the past by abandoning family, friends, money and possessions along the way; he renames himself Alex -- an exploring "leather tramp," a vagabond without a vehicle -- never to be heard from by his relatives again.

According to his sister, Corine (Jena Malone) he frequently disappeared for weeks on end before, so no one was greatly alarmed at first. By the time they began to worry, he was in Carthage, South Dakota -- a town he chose as a stopover, temporary mail-drop place, loose enough for his new identity -- where everyone knew him as Alexander Supertramp.

It was 10 years after the book came out that the McCandless family gave Sean Penn the go ahead to film this remarkable story. Penn's untamed side -- having grown up as a surfer -- was delighted with the project.

Chris' twisty tale hangs upon his own written words and anecdotes -- the collective memory of the unusual characters whose lives he joined, out of the blue, and just as abruptly shifted out of -- held together by grappling hooks of Krakauer's similar quest for thrill and meaning on the slopes as a young climber.

Paralleling Krakauer's sentiments, Penn's feeling of kinship with the young risktaker is self evident in his authentic rendering of Chris' crossing the country, heading west and beyond, detailed in flashbacks with voiceovers.

This cinematically sumptuous, sometimes brutally rugged, outdoor account chronicles two years of Chris's life as Alex; from age 22 through 24, seamlessly fictionalized, while firmly rooted in truth, with great intensity.

Penn adopts our homeless hero and photographs him through the lens of a father's love -- on foot, by kayak, hiding on trains and hitching rides from coast to coast. Zigzagging out west and heading north -- where he planned to live in the sub arctic chill as a hunter/gatherer for quite some time, alone and unencumbered -- Chris is always fatefully attended by a caressing camera.

McCandless entered the Alaskan wilderness in April of 1992, driven by sheer willpower and testosterone. He did not mind enduring endless hardship in line with his choice for uncompromising autonomy.

We watch him take refuge in an abandoned bus at trek's end -- as we are praying that his mission, in spite of all its adversity, would end happily, perhaps in writing a book about surviving in majestically soulful places.

Trudging through the northern slush of spring with borrowed boots and scant supplies, was he foolish to go unaided? What made him leave his map behind, charting his own course, ground breaking a simple path to total self-reliance?

Penn agrees with Krakauer that a quest for facing self and stretching personal limits drove Chris into the bone chilling backwoods, stripped of all falsehood, in a fierce love of Mother Nature, standing his ground under extreme conditions.

Was his stubbornly planned self-sufficient trip to the rough country a mistake from the beginning? Was he too eager to act out a worldview shaped by writings of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London in a misguidedly mythical expedition?

Hijacked by our own imagination, we are shaken awake and held hostage through our eyes and ears and pounding heartbeat, to the tune of Eddie Wedder's music and lyrics keeping in perfect rhythm with the consistently stunning cinematography, as excitement builds.

What kind of inner territory did this resourcefully inventive rebel, Chris McCandless, eventually map out for himself? Was it a blueprint of finding freedom in the essence of authenticity, or a record of renunciation, martyring self on the altar of inflexible ideals?

There is enough room in this beautifully done, true to life, man-versus-nature tale to allow for diverse interpretations. This movie is destined to be relished by vagabond wannabes and armchair misfits, or just mere mortals like us, for many moons to come.