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Photograph by Chuck Zlotnick/Paramount Vantage
A WALK IN THE PARK—NOT: Emile Hirsch plays the not-so-happy wanderer Chris McCandless in Sean Penn's 'Into the Wild.'

Hunger Artist

Sean Penn's overwrought direction elbows the feeling right out of adventure story 'Into the Wild'

By Richard von Busack

AFTER THREE MOVIES, director Sean Penn finally found the solipsist he has been waiting for: Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), the ill-fated hero of Into the Wild. The true-life account of the lone wanderer, self-named "Alexander Supertramp," is the kind of horror story that Werner Herzog treated with skepticism in Grizzly Man. Penn, though, is a man of raw emotions, all of them at once. And he brings his wounded inner child straight to the forefront. McCandless was a romantic, ill-prepared sojourner—a fool who tried to hustle the North—but Penn insists that he was an escapee from the world of poisonous adults.

Some of this Penn gleaned from the source book. Biographer Jon Krakauer was so enamored with McCandless that he didn't even comment on the megalomania of a man who chooses the name "Alexander." As Krakauer admits, there was something in McCandless' wandering that suited the author's own view of life and the thought of how a supreme test could make one escape the grip of a supercompetitive father. Krakauer climbed his mountain and described the plunging abyss beneath him: "I caught sight of something ... some forbidden and elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet, hidden petals of a woman's sex." One replies to Krakauer, in both his roles as a writer and a polemicist: "Less."

Penn, being Penn, went "More." I think I could have felt the tragedy a little if Penn didn't overcook it, relentlessly, insisting on the epochal importance and purity of this young man. Penn quotes the poem "May 1937" by Sharon Olds, a variation on a very similar literary panic attack by Delmore Schwartz. If we didn't get it—McCandless' parents doomed him—the narration by his sister, Carine (Jena Malone, the dysfunctional-family poster girl), underscores the point with yellow felt pen. Carine praises the genius of her missing brother in Billy Jack movie terms: "He was seeking the truth of his existence." William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play the thoughtlessly abrasive parents; can the McCandlesses really have approved this vision of themselves?

Eric Gautier's landscapes are exhilarating, and the sheer road-trip aspect of the movie sometimes watches out for itself, as Into the Wild travels from the Southwest to the Dakotas to Alaska. The wandering Chris reparents himself with a hippie mom and dad (Catherine Keener and the debuting Brian Dierker) and finds refuge with a kindly oldster (Hal Holbrook). The sequences of the drop-out caravan at the Slabs in the Southern California desert are by far the best part, offering refreshing visions of the slouchy life. Maybe it's just the sight of other people that perks up the story. Being a Penn film, though, most of Into the Wild is hair-windmilling improv, often in slow-motion, spackled by Eddie Vedder's soundtrack as the actors shout into nothingness. Hirsch, in his teenage wolf-man makeup, endlessly searches for bush-meat during the prolonged endgame. Did nothing become McCandless' life like the leaving of it? Penn seems to think so—this is a longer study of the act of dying than The English Patient.

Movie Times INTO THE WILD (R; 140 min.), directed and written by Sean Penn, based on the book by John Krakauer, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Emile Hirsch, opens Sept. 28 at selected theaters.

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