by HELEN GEIB
Into the Wild is a dramatization of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling true story chronicle of the ill-fated wilderness adventure of a young man named Christopher McCandless. McCandless graduated from college, donated his trust fund savings to charity, packed a few books and clothes and headed west. He abandoned his car when it broke down in Arizona and tramped, hitchhiked and kayaked the rest of a circuitous path to Alaska. The film recounts some of the more colorful episodes of his two year journey and his final weeks in Alaska.
The story is told through extended flashbacks, primarily jumping between McCandless’s Alaskan interlude and episodes from his travels, but also incorporating scenes from his childhood and his parents’ response to his disappearance. There are two voiceover narrations. The primary narration is a set of fairly impressionistic readings taken from McCandless’s writings, but there is also an extensive set of documentary-style readings from his younger sister recounting their childhood, her interpretation of McCandless’s motivations, and the effect of his disappearance on the family.
Into the Wild was written and directed by Sean Penn and stars Emile Hirsch as McCandless, William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his parents, Jena Malone as his sister, and Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and Hal Holbrook as three of the people he meets on his travels. Although an ambitious project assembling impressive talent, Into the Wild is not successful. One of those films that seems like it should be much better than it is, it left me interested in reading the book, and dubious that the book is at all suited to adaptation.
The principal culprit is the film’s formal construction that relies heavily on the flashbacks and narration, plus static devices like showing pages from McCandless’s journal and “chapter” title cards. This elaborate and frequently leaden construction consistently sabotages the film’s dramatic force. It repeatedly dissipates the dramatic tension and undercuts the viewer’s emotional involvement by jumping to another part of the story just as the film has started to gain momentum. The flashback structure that dominates the film does not advance the narrative or explicate the underlying theme (the search for self-knowledge) in any way that is sufficiently compelling to compensate for its drawbacks.
Parts of the movie are engrossing. The passages with Vaughn, Keener, and Holbrook are especially good. Their scenes are almost too good, overshadowing the rest of the film in interest and emotional impact. The movie is too often just a pretty travelogue about the Western parks when McCandless is moving around the country on his own. It comes alive when he meets people and has conversations. He has great conversations with the three of them.