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‘Into the Wild’ is a journey worth taking

A 20-something tries going back to nature with tragic results in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.”

Graduate students of the future looking for a way to link Sean Penn’s new film “Into the Wild” with his vocal criticism of the war in Iraq might well note that the movie tells the story of an ambitious effort that went horribly awry because it lacked an exit strategy. Based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction best-seller about college student Chris McCandless (played here by Emile Hirsch), the film grandly documents how youthful enthusiasm and idealism isn’t always enough to ensure survival.

The narrative jumps backward and forward to introduce us to Chris, a fresh-faced Emory University graduate who decides to eschew law school, choosing instead to burn his Social Security card, give all of his savings to charity, and basically go off the grid. While his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) fret over his disappearance, we see Chris tramp his way across the country and into Mexico as his sister (Jena Malone) narrates his backstory.

While Hurt and Harden at first seem like typically doting and suffocating parents, we learn how supremely dysfunctional their relationship was and how it affected their children. But even if Chris has a life that he’s actively running from — and he’s not just a “Grizzly Man”–style lunatic — that’s not enough to save him from one fateful winter in Alaska, which brings his dreams of living off the land face-to-face with the deadly reality of nature.

While Chris meets a variety of interesting people in his travels — including Vince Vaughn and Zach Galifianakis as grain elevator operators, Catherine Keener as an aging hippie, and Hal Holbrook as a lonely widower — he remains something of a cipher. While Hirsch is wonderfully mercurial at capturing the many phases of Chris’s life (and will no doubt get rave reviews for starving himself to be gaunt in the film’s latter sequences), almost everything we know about the character comes from Malone’s voice-overs and not from Hirsch himself.

The film’s other major flaw is the irritating Eddie Vedder score, which features song after song telling us what we already know about what’s happening on screen. It’s perhaps the most superfluous movie music since Carly Simon underlined and italicized every other scene in Nora Ephron’s “This is My Life.”

Nonetheless, “Into the Wild” demands to be seen on the big screen, especially because of Eric Gautier’s extraordinary cinematography, which makes Chris’ travels sweeping and majestic but never National Geographic pretty. (Gautier worked similar magic on the mountains and rivers of South America when he shot “The Motorcycle Diaries.”)

And say what you will about Penn, he knows how to direct actors. Even though the movie is packed with familiar faces, Penn’s ability to draw previously unseen facets from his cast makes for one revelation after another.

Holbrook, in particular, shines here; he’s the sort of actor who lazy directors always like to cast as a wise old sage — “the Hal Holbrook role,” essentially — but here he’s allowed to tap into deep reserves of pain, regret and loneliness. It’s heartening to know that an 80-something performer is still ready to dig into a meaty role when it comes along.

“Into the Wild” may be the most stirring drama you ever see about failed ambitions. But even if it makes you think twice about that camping trip, it’s a journey worth taking.