I felt conflicted about reviewing Into the Wild, Sean Penn's new film chronicling the life and death of Christopher McCandless. Jon Krakauer's best-selling book of the same name -- published to wide acclaim in 1996 -- told of how McCandless took a journey across America seeking some deeply-held goal that ended with his death, alone, in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. And the reason for my conflicted feeling was simple: For all of my carefully calculated professional cynicism, I don't like speaking ill of the dead. But then I realized that speaking ill of Into the Wild is very different from speaking ill of Christopher McCandless. A human death is a tragedy; a movie about death is a movie.
We meet McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, as he's graduating from university. He's supposed to be coming home and figuring out what's next; instead, he sells the majority of his things, donates his life savings/college fund to Oxfam America, burns his social security card, and sets out across America -- re-naming himself Alexander Supertramp. We're supposed to see his decisions and actions as the birth of a free-spirited soul, but we're also seeing classic signs of suicidal ideation. From the outset, Chris doesn't come across as unfettered -- just unmedicated.
We follow McCandless -- meeting fellow free-spirits Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) in his travels, working the fields in the heartland for the hearty and funny Wayne (Vince Vaughn), constantly working towards getting to his dream destination of Alaska, where he wants to live off the land. Even with voice-over drawn from real-life letters and documents, though, we don't get a real sense of McCandless -- he's supposed to be this pure, uncompromising seeker-of-truth; he more often comes across on-screen as a smug, unlikable narcissist, exactly the sort of anti-capitalist you can only become if you spring from an immensely privileged background.