In the winter of 1991, young twentysomething Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was making his way to the wilderness of Alaska, following a dream of self-sufficiency that had driven him for around two years now. A hitchhiker, he was dropped off by his latest Good Samaritan who was decent enough to give up his galoshes to assist him in the snowy landscape and set off looking for somewhere to stay. But not where there were any people about, as he was intent on avoiding human contact as much as he could. He stumbled upon an abandoned school bus and set up camp there, convinced he had found his ideal life - but it was to be his undoing...
Based on a true story, and when you finally see a photograph of the real McCandless it's remarkable how much Hirsch resembles him, director Sean Penn adapted Jon Krakauer's account of the short life of - what? A man who's singleminded pursuit of his own path tragically proved his downfall? Or a deceptively cruel narcissist who caused pain in many of those he met by rejecting their moves towards friendship or even love? Penn seems divided between these two poles, but however unsympathetic this McCandless becomes, his very idiosyncrasy is what makes him so compelling.
If there are villains in this, then in the first half of this flashback-filled film they appear to be McCandless's parents. Despite the very first scene being his mother (Marica Gay Harden) hearing his call for help in a dream and waking his father (William Hurt) to share the anguish, from what we learn from the voiceover of his sister Carine (Jena Malone) it was they who shaped his restless character. They drove him away with their fighting, the revelation that his father was already married with a child when he was born, making him and Carine illegitimate, and their general messing up of his childhood. A dysfunctional family, then, but many get over shaky upbringings so why not Chris?
In fact, by the end our protagonist has grown to look very selfish indeed. On his travels after pretending to go to university (he was an exemplary college student, but apparently more out of duty than enthusiasm), he never called home, not even to his sister, so they never spoke to him again after he vanished from their lives, leaving them bereft and ironically making the family closer than they had been in years. It's easy to miss this undercurrent of heartache for much of the film as McCandless cheerfully goes about his adventures, with Penn laying on the twinkly montages as if they were going out of fashion, but with almost everyone he leaves behind he also leaves a sense of sorrow.
Essentially a road movie, Into the Wild features a handful of memorable encounters with some well-sketched individuals. Brian H. Dierker and Catherine Keener are a travelling hippy couple in a motor home who McCandless actually meets up with twice, and there's a wealth of life experience intimated by their performances without going overboard. Vince Vaughn is an easygoing farmer Chris works for for a few months to finance his journey and Kristen Stewart a teenage girl and aspiring singer who falls in love with him to no avail. Perhaps best of all is Hal Holbrook, a lovely interpretation of a widower with no family or ties, but in contrast to the young nomad this is not the life he wanted. The film is summed up by the scene where the tearful old man asks to adopt Chris as his grandson just as he is about to set out for Alaska; Chris will never see him again, but cannot bring himself to simply say yes to his new friend's request. Here we see that individualism can also mean callous egotism, yet McCandless's final folly still troubles. Music by Michael Brook, Kaki King and Eddie Vedder.