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Wild Kayakers I Have Known 

VISIONARY OR IDIOT?
  • VISIONARY OR IDIOT?

If there is a basic truth in Sean Penn's latest film, “Into the Wild,” it's that freedom is not necessarily measured by the possessions or money that allow us access to society's pleasures. The universal need to escape — to vacate your mind — is a theme that every audience can relate to. But just how far are you willing to flee?

Chris McCandless, to some, embodied a special breed of the hard-core nature lover, seeking to reclaim the ideals espoused by two of his favorite authors: Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. But others find McCandless' biography infuriating, calling his failure in the Alaskan wilderness the result of arrogance and carelessness.

I had both reactions to Jon Krakauer's “Into the Wild” — first, when I silently resented an English professor for imposing such a moronic character into my life and conversely, 10 years later, when I re-read the book and felt selfish and heartbroken after turning the last page. Whether you admire McCandless' courage to break convention or you've never even heard of the guy, Penn's feelings about him are obvious. His earnest adaptation of Krakauer's best-selling novel doesn't stray from the original plot. It may not be everyone's cup of herbal tea, but I thought it translated beautifully onto the screen.

Top cinematographer Eric Gautier (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) delivers stunning landscapes at every turn of this film. McCandless, who deemed himself “Alexander Supertramp” after abandoning his money, car and means of identification, covered impressive ground before setting out for his final destination of Alaska. Kayaking without a permit through the Grand Canyon? Check. Hitchhiking along the Pacific coast? Check. Train-hopping over the border to Mexico? Check.

The film intermittently shifts from past to present, bringing the viewer closer to its protagonist, and more emphatically, right on top of McCandless' personal grief about an agonizing family secret. His reasons for turning his back on society and his family pulsate like a giant neon sign.

Central to the theme of self-discovery are the various gypsies and loners he meets along the way. Penn, in the director's chair, and the supporting cast handle this assignment very gingerly. Hal Holbrook, playing a character who is perhaps more isolated than McCandless, gives a memorable performance. But most persuasive is Emile Hirsch (“The Girl Next Door,” “Alpha Dog”), carrying the part of McCandless with absolute conviction. His wide-eyed lust for backcountry landscapes and infatuation with self-reliance will, at best, leave you questioning why so many people forfeit an intangible future for security and convenience.

Nothing, however, will inspire every cliche-ridden allergy to hippies faster than the regrettable score by Eddie Vedder. Why Penn chose to torment his audience with the cringe-inducing and far too literal verse is beyond me. Luckily, he saves face with the overall product. But just to be fair, if your sense of wanderlust or contempt for “The System” has permanently been repressed, then you might find this movie too idealistic. Otherwise, throw all caution to the wind and go get lost.

Jennie Swanson

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