I can understand why someone wouldn’t like Into the Wild but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes it’s long and yes it’s slow-paced and yes it’s at times full of itself. But I was pulled into it and didn’t feel its long runtime until the very end.

The film walks a thin line between glamorizing McCandless and disapproving of his attitude and journey. He’s romanticized prominently but the negative aspects are more subtle until the end. Occasionally you think throughout the film, “man this guy’s kind of a dick” but by the end there’s no doubt. “Yes,” you say, “he’s definitely a dick.” I still felt for the guy at the end, but he is exposed as a naive, stubborn kid whose flaws did him in. The glamor is completely gone at the end as he realizes he’s eschewed a major part of the human experience – social interaction – in his deluded search for truth.

McCandless dies on the first page of John Krakauer’s book, but Penn decides not to reveal his fate until the very end of the film. It’s an interesting choice, but I have to imagine the film loses some of its impact if you are not aware that the whole journey is just a stubborn march towards death. Certain moments gain significance when you understand McCandless to be a tragic and doomed figure. Perhaps Penn expects most viewers to know McCandless dies before going into the theater.

Speaking of Penn, he makes several strange shot choices that I could do without. One scene shows McCandless eating an apple in the woods. He tosses the core away then runs up to the camera and waves. Something silly like that can take the viewer right out of the film. Once McCandless is dying in his broken down bus, Penn gets a bit too artsy and heavy-handed with close-ups of particular passages and words in a poem McCandless has written. I shouldn’t be noticing particular shots that bother me. In fact, that rarely happens even in movies that I hate.

Emile Hirsch is wildly inconsistent as McCandless. Some scenes he pulls of brilliantly and some are just terrible. It would be safe to say that his physical acting trumps his dialogue delivery. Hal Holbrook is getting tipped for a supporting actor nomination despite his short appearance. The whole sequence with Holbrook was, to me, easily the weakest of the film. The relationship fell utterly flat and Hirsch is at his worst in these scenes.

But enough of the negative. Into the Wild follows the usual road trip film formula of wide landscape shots and quirky characters. Vince Vaughn is amusing as a South Dakota farmer and I liked Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as a hippie couple. (Fun fact: imdb tells me that Dierker was also the film’s marine coordinator. In fact, he was hired to drive boats and scout water locations and ended up with a fairly major acting role in the film, his first film role.) McCandless forms relationships with the people he encounters but they’re awkward, like he never fully matured socially, and I enjoyed that dynamic. They all clearly like the kid but cannot understand him (perhaps an impossible task). The narration, usually from Jena Malone as McCandless’s sister, initially comes off as cheesy and pretentious but as the movie progressed it began to make sense to me since it’s so hard to ascribe any sort of logic to this misguided traveler that if you try to explain it you end up with “deep” mumbo jumbo. And the scenery is simply breathtaking.

Finally, I’m a huge Pearl Jam fan and I hope Eddie Vedder’s work gets him the nomination he was robbed of for Pearl Jam’s contribution to Big Fish. I really like most of the songs and will pick up the soudtrack eventually. The simple, jangly tunes fit in very well with the film.

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