A bit like us
OK, I love to travel to places I don't know to connect with life's companion thrill, Nature (people being the major gift of existence). So I'm probably going to like Sean Penn's Into the Wild, which introduces us to a real-life peripatetic hero, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsh), not an egomaniac like Werner Herzog's Timothy Treadwell, but just a brainy, 60's type hippy in love with Thoreau and decidedly not enamored of suburban life.
We travel with him to his starvation death in a "magic bus" in Alaska, all the time aware that even this Emery grad may not know why he forsakes everyone for a death march into Alaska.
The strength of the film is the way Penn can indulge impressionistic inclinations by cutting frequently to small mise en scene details that represent rather than move the story. A bee pollinating a flower is a representation of Nature's endurance, a pair of rubber boots emblematic of the inelegant survival measures required to last in the northern wilderness.
The weakness is those very details, gratuitous addenda indulging the director's need for recognition among the artistic elite. For me they remain the impressions of a trip well taken, where the destination is not primary and the images and people along the way everything. Hal Holbrook's Ron Franz, a lonely old man befriending Chris, speaks of the need for family just as we do in our hearts, aware of how Chris has jettisoned his flawed parents and loving sister for an idealistic exit from this world in which some of his final written words are about being "lonely."
Jon Krakauer's best seller is served well here for those of us who long to see the landscapes his docudrama novel recreates from the hero's scribbling and his family's reminiscences, especially his sister, Carine's (Jena Malone). In the end, it's just Chris, and Penn, and us wondering if separation from society is a good thing. Penn avoids the answer and Chris's deepest motivations; he does provide a slow-moving, satisfying ramble with an engaging, self-destructive adventurer, who turns out to be a bit like us.