Combustible Celluloid
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With: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Written by: Sean Penn, based on the book by Jon Krakauer
Directed by: Sean Penn
MPAA Rating: R for language and some nudity
Running Time: 140
Date: 09/01/2007

Into the Wild (2007)

1 Star (out of 4)

Gall of the 'Wild'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Based on a book by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild plays into the age-old fantasy of dropping out, hitting the road or going "off grid." Unfortunately, director Sean Penn takes the book as gospel -- sometimes quite literally. He presents the main character Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) as a Christ-like figure spreading goodness and wisdom throughout the land. Penn, in his zeal for the character, very simply misses the obvious: this is a spoiled brat who has become disillusioned with his parents, as every young person eventually does. (He's angry because they're no longer perfect.) However, this kid takes his disenchantment to an inflexibly psychotic level at which he is willing to sacrifice himself as well as everyone else. And though he desperately needs challenging, no other character ever does so. Each person he meets seems passively enlightened by his presence and his juvenile insight (he quotes Tolstoy and other classics), including a pair of traveling hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) a love-struck, folk-singing girl (Kristen Stewart) and a lonely old man (Hal Holbrook). Only Vince Vaughn as a farmer who employs Chris for a brief time has the gall to briefly question, although this character disappears soon after. When Chris arrives in remote Alaska -- his ultimate destination -- he's happy to find an abandoned van to live in, which seems to me to have violated his entire desire to get away from civilization. Penn's direction, which was so beautifully modulated in his previous feature The Pledge (2001), here goes all over the map, opting for laughably bad cutaways and other ludicrous choices. The nearly three-hour running time (which has impressed many viewers) is the final nail in the coffin; it only expands and enhances the film's pretentiousness. Eddie Vedder tries to fill in the emotional blanks with his mournful, self-righteous songs. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are stuck playing the miserable, much-hated parents, and Jena Malone narrates as Chris's confused sister.

(Note: The real McCandless took this journey in 1992. Krakauer apparently pieced together his travels through interviews and journals, but since McCandless was alone much of the time, there must have been at least some guesswork involved.)

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