In Christopher McCandless, director Sean Penn has found a character that speaks to his own quest to find meaning in life. Instead of focusing on characters that are spiritually dead, as he did in his first three films, Penn gets to tell the story of a young man who is absolutely spiritually alive, and this spurs Penn the director onto a level of empathy equal to that of Penn the actor. One need not share McCandless' goals in order to appreciate Penn's movie -- this film is far from an endorsement to throw off the conventions of society and live off the land. The screenplay offers numerous reasons other than a romantic desire to lead a Thoreau-inspired life for McCandless to set off on his journey. There are painful psychological scars driving him, as well as an honest if occasionally petulant need simply to do what isn't expected of him. Emile Hirsch, the young actor playing McCandless, embodies all of these conflicting but powerful motivations in a performance that never once rings false. Hirsch succeeds grandly in the first rule of modern film acting -- he doesn't "act," he simply "is." The actor is so present in the part that the audience easily accepts how he changes the lives of those he meets during his journey. Catherine Keener delivers yet another vivid performance as Jan, a fellow tramp who, with her husband, Rainey (Brian Dierker), provides the model for the ideal family Chris never had growing up. Keener and Dierker, in an outstanding movie debut, suggest the deep history between them in little more than loving if occasionally pained looks. These people have the emotions that Chris wants to feel -- even if he does not realize that is what he wants until the end of the movie.
The story is structured in five acts, and at the end of each act Penn breaks typical movie convention and has McCandless look directly into the camera. The first time this happens it seems like a boneheaded choice -- as if the director didn't trust his audience enough to love the character on our own. But as these moments accumulate, one realizes that those looks into the camera aren't about gaining sympathy, but are about sharing intimacy. We are moved and affected by Chris' journey, just as the other characters in the film have been. When Chris learns his final lessons in Alaska, when he finally discovers the truth that he himself has been looking for, the film has the weight of Greek tragedy. But instead of devastation, one leaves the movie with a sense of exhilaration -- the sense of a life well-lived. With this film, Penn, who always seemed like an old soul trapped in a young man's body, shows that he has matured. Into the Wild is a grandly successful statement of purpose both as an artist and as a person.