In adapting Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild for the screen, Sean Penn has faithfully preserved the mystery at the core of this true story — namely, what the fuck it was Christopher McCandless was thinking when he hitchhiked to deepest Alaska in 1992 without the gear, provisions, or hunting skills necessary to survive on his own. Everyone who knew McCandless has their speculations, including his quarreling suburban parents (mustachioed William Hurt vs. Marcia Gay Harden in full tilt Sirk boogie), a simpatico kid sister (the underused Jena Malone), and various aw-shucks folks he met during his quest to live more deliberately. Ultimately, none of their guesses amounts to a hill of beans — or, unfortunately, to a satisfying movie.
Penn has the directorial chops to extract low-key performances that percolate rather than boil (notably, Jack Nicholson in The Crossing Guard and The Pledge). But the laid-back SoCal vibe emitted here by lead actor Emile Hirsch (who played skate god Jay Adams in Lords of Dogtown) only thickens the fog surrounding his character’s motivations. Hirsch’s McCandless is an asexual naïf who rejects human attachments as worthless; and yet he hardly seems capable of connecting with anyone even if he wanted to. It’s one thing for a young man to feel alienated after graduation and quite another for him to disappear off the grid.
There’s a Grizzly Man inside this film just waiting to get out, but Eric Gautier’s functional cinematography has none of the amateur flair or intimations of madness that made Timothy Treadwell’s footage oddly sublime. We’re left with little understanding of what nature had to offer McCandless other than a void.