The Pledge into a riveting and underrated thriller, Sean Penn returns to directing with a flawed but refreshingly intelligent treatment of Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer's gripping nonfiction account of 22-year-old Christopher McCandless' real-life journey into oblivion.
Immediately after graduating from Emory University, feisty, fiercely independent Chris McCandless (an impressive Emile Hirsch) cuts up his credit cards, donates his savings to Oxfam and, hopping into his battered Datsun, heeds Horace Greeley's age-old injunction to "Go West, young man." Turning his back on his stern father (William Hurt), mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and sister (Jena Malone, who also serves as the narrator), Chris fills his backpack with his favorite writers — London, Tolstoy, Pasternak, Thoreau — and embarks on a two-year journey through the American West that will find him ditching his car after a flash flood, hanging out with hippies in the desert, paddling down the Colorado River to Mexico, hopping boxcars north and wandering into a homeless shelter in downtown Los Angeles. Before finding his ultimate refuge in an abandoned bus deep in the Alaskan wilderness, Chris touches the lives of a variety of people: hippie mom Jan (Catherine Keener), whose own son disappeared two years earlier; Jan's avuncular old man, Rainey (Brian Dierker); roustabout Wayne (Vince Vaughn), who gives Chris a job at a South Dakota grain elevator; Tracy (Kristen Stewart), the pretty 16-year-old Chris meets in the California desert; and Ron Franz (a heartbreaking Hal Holbrook), who lost his wife and son to a drunk driver and now waits to die by the Salton Sea. Chris tells everyone he meets he's searching for "truth" and the kind freedom he feels can only be found on the edges of America's final frontier: the Alaskan wilderness. But in chasing the truth of his destiny, Chris is also running from the lies of his past.
Krakauer's account of what happened to Christopher McCandless during his two-year trek through the wilderness cuts to the heart of one of America's founding romantic narratives: the myth of the Western frontier where individuals can discover truth, ultimate freedom and the true measures of themselves. For McCandless, this mythic frontier also served as an oblivion into which a troubled young man could disappear and reimagine himself as something other than an upper-middle-class kid from a dysfunctional family (at the outset of his odyssey, Chris adopts the name "Alexander Supertramp") before coming smack up against another great American notion: We can only know love, happiness and ultimately ourselves through community, whether the one we're born into or a family we form along the way. Penn generously holds out the hope that we need not travel so far afield to find ourselves, or confront nature to discover the truth of our lives: We simply have to learn how to forgive. The film, however, is too long — the scenes in which Hirsch improvises for the camera feel like acting exercises and add nothing — and Eddie Vedder's obvious original songs only worsen Penn's natural tendency to drive subtleties home with a hammer. leave a comment --Ken fox