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Into The Wild

Chuck Zlotnick/Paramount Vantage

Review in a Hurry:  Writer-director Sean Penn goes way out on a limb—and, amazingly, takes the audience with him—to find the poetry in this true-life story of a young man driven over the edge of civilization. The film was adapted by Penn from the book by Jon Krakauer, a fine chronicler of the extreme.

The Bigger Picture:  It takes an uncompromising vision to do justice to the story of Christopher McCandless. At 22, he graduated from college and immediately derailed his life and abandoned his family, hitchhiking around the country calling himself Alexander Supertramp, eventually wandering into the Alaskan wilderness on a quest for personal enlightenment.

Adaptations of such a journey can easily fall prey to mystical pandering or jejune pretension. Fortunately, Penn is no great compromiser and dutifully traces the young dropout's path across America, confident that this is a story to which attention must be paid.

Though Penn's sympathies lie with McCandless, the director's camera is impassive, and the film's driving intent is to doggedly document rather than celebrate: Look, this happened, then this happened. Whether Penn thinks it startling and amazing quickly becomes beside the point, since McCandless' story is undeniably so, for all the man's faults.

McCandless is a creature of noble intentions and profound thoughtfulness (before dropping out of sight, he donates his life savings to global-hunger charity Oxfam), but also juvenile arrogance and cruel indifference (he sends not so much as a postcard to his family explaining his disappearance). This makes Emile Hirsch's (Alpha Dog) portrayal a delicate balancing act, neither hoisting him by his own petard nor letting him off the hook.

Hirsch seems deeply touched by the character's zeal for his new life, if not always connected to the pain that drove him to it. It's a brave performance, though, and he holds his own against a standout supporting cast, giving us a portrait of a young man searching for the meaning of human existence in places where humans weren't meant to exist.

The 180—a Second Opinion:  If you think that this is a sprawling two-plus hours documenting the life of a young malcontent who didn't really do anything notable besides get lost and then get found, well, you'd be correct. If you prefer the destination to the journey, you can safely give Into The Wild a pass—at least until awards season.