Emile Hirsch, in a breakout role, hitchhikes across America in Sean Penn's Into the Wild.

With Into the Wild, a soulful and bittersweet odyssey of a film, Sean Penn has edged his way into Werner Herzog land. Herzog loves extremists and escapists, those who court the edges of society, or seek to transcend its clutches and its hypocrisies. For Penn’s project, which will naturally trigger memories of Grizzly Man and Rescue Dawn, the point of departure-literally and literarily-is Jon Krakauer’s book about Christopher John McCandless.

In the early ’90s, the 23-year-old McCandless left his home and family without a word and trekked across America in search of truth and self-realization. Not incidentally, he was also fleeing from a dysfunctional, turbulent family life, checking out after graduating from college and ending up in an abandoned bus in Alaska.

For Penn, the saga of McCandless-who took on the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp-is a naturally cinematic tale; one in which elements of the road movie and the rite-of-passage genre come readily into play. Penn also understands that the best way to tell the story is inside out, to begin in the great, unpeopled northern outpost McCandless travels to (a metaphorical as well as a physical place) and work his way down-moving east and west, as well as back and forth in time.

As much as the story is about one young man’s sojourn, it also presents a mosaic-like portrait of the myriad elements of the American life. Along his meandering path across America, “Supertramp” (Emile Hirsch, in a career-launching role) stops and bonds with an aging hippie (Catherine Keener), a Midwestern farmer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely older man (an endearing Hal Holbrook).

Music plays a key role in the film’s texture, as cooked up by mood-maker Michael Brook, ace acoustic guitarist Kaki King, and Eddie Vedder. Like Vedder’s music, Penn’s movie has an oddly muscular sweetness and a certain effective sentimentality about it. It’s a rambling mythical tale about an ordinary American who went on an extraordinary, soul-searching adventure. It’s the stuff of fiction, plucked from the annals of fact.


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