"Into the Wild" is beautiful, thoughtful


Jon Krakauer's haunting, scraped-bare nonfiction book "Into the Wild," about a young man's journey into the remote Alaskan wilderness, began at its story's end, wound backward to the beginning and made its way back to the end. Sean Penn's thoughtful film version makes a crucial change to the storytelling, beginning near the end and rewinding back in layers, but not revealing its conclusion until the end of 140 minutes. Because of this, the experience of watching the movie will be vastly different for those who've read the book and for those who haven't; it's less the unraveling of a mystery than a journey itself, toward an uncertain destination.

Christopher McCandless (played in the movie by Emile Hirsch) was in his early 20s when, in 1992, he hitchhiked to Alaska and headed, in his own words from a postcard written to a friend, "into the wild." A recent college graduate, he was frustrated with the conventionality of his well-off East Coast family and by the material world. He gave away his possessions (donating a large savings account to charity), abandoned his car, cut off communications with his family and began drifting around the country, touching the lives of those he met.

Penn's movie is structured as a series of vignettes from Chris' journey, accompanied by an often poetic voice-over from the perspective of Chris' sister (Jena Malone). Many of these are beautifully structured and performed, giving the film a sense of serendipitous community, of lives linked by a young man's wanderings. Catherine Keener, as a drifter Chris meets in the West, conveys a world of sadness behind her carefree smile. It's slowly acknowledged that her character has a son who's lost to her, and she takes Chris' chin in her hand and strokes it with impossible gentleness. "Do your folks know where you are?" she asks softly, letting us hear long-buried pain.

And the Alaskan sequences are majestically beautiful, even as Penn conveys the tension beneath Chris' lonely days in the wild. A flower is shockingly purple against the muddy yellow-green of the abandoned bus in which Chris set up his camp; the camera lingers quietly on the threadbare items left behind by other campers. Hirsch, whose portrayal of Chris in his pre-Alaska days is all youth and recklessness, takes on an edgier persona here. He becomes heartbreakingly thin, and his eyes seem to harbor a nervous desperation. Is Chris teetering on the edge of madness, alone in the wilderness? Or have his dreams come true?

Krakauer, whose book was based on a long article for Outside magazine, noted in his book that many readers disagreed with his ultimate admiration of Chris' quest, calling it irresponsible and foolhardy. Penn's adaptation is more black-and-white than the book, painting Chris as almost saintly and his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) as uptight, miserable repressors. It's the film's only misstep; as if Penn didn't trust the audience to make up their own minds. Perhaps the filmmaker felt a kinship with his young subject, as described in Krakauer's book: "More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white. He measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com