When is a hippie not such a hippie?
While it may not have been the central task of director Sean Penn to humanize (or de-hippify) Christopher McCandless—who gave away all his money, walked away from society, and died in the Alaskan wilderness—from my point of view, it was a necessity. Though I have a soft spot for those who turn their noses up at societal conventions, I have little sympathy for those who refuse to take responsibility for the ensuing mess their actions create. Penn introduced me to a complicated character I not only liked, but came to understand and respect.
The backstory of Into the Wild comes from Jon Krakauer's book, which recounts the true tale of McCandless—who drops out of life after college, gives his entire savings to charity, and becomes a nomad, wandering the country in search of... well, nothing really. With a worn copy of Thoreau firmly in hand, McCandless is determined to live in each moment, and eventually his travels push him farther and farther from civilization and into an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilds. This film is more about the trip than the destination, and it's to Penn's credit (and that of Emile Hirsch, who plays McCandless) that the audience is brought to a better understanding of this young nomad's often baffling actions.
Penn uses pointed, elegiac imagery of Americana to punctuate McCandless' journey, and the supporting cast of Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker, and (in a particularly devastating turn) Hal Holbrook play believable, sympathetic characters who are both influenced by and eventually lead the young traveler to his road's end and hard-won epiphany. As for Hirsch, he plays McCandless with such an open-faced likeability, one can't help but be as conflicted as everyone else who witnesses him walking headlong into destruction, while realizing he has no other path to choose.
A bit on the long side, and lacking the emotionally resonant ending I expected, Into the Wild is nevertheless a journey well worth taking... at least from the bourgeois comfort of a theater chair.