Despite its title and the fact that it's based on a book by adventure writer Jon Krakauer, "Into the Wild" is not a tale of adventure. Adventures ride a wave of emotion, taking you from the uncertainty of the unknown to the exhilaration of discovery. "Into the Wild" is a tale of searching, in this case for something seemingly unobtainable: absolute truth. It's a quest that perhaps only a naive idealist could hope to achieve, and one given over to apprehension.
"Into the Wild" is based on the true story of Christopher Johnson McCandless. McCandless was raised in an upper middle class suburban Washington family brimming with dysfunction and, as McCandless would discover, betrayal. Within days of graduating from Emory University in 1992 he piled his few possessions into a beat-up Datsun and disappeared to find the truth.
As McCandless later explains, you can't find that truth through human relationships alone: "It's in everything." So with his possessions tucked into a backpack, he heads off in search of The Truth. He kayaks the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, he hops freight trains, he spends a night on skid row, he hangs at an alternative community, he works the grain harvest in South Dakota.
But it is the human relationships that drive this story. Emile Hirsch as McCandless is at once certain of himself and humble, all-knowing yet voraciously curious. He's charismatic yet imminently approachable, pious without being judgmental of the disparate souls he befriends along the way. This makes the story so painfully poignant. Throughout the film, McCandless brings his black-and-white world into the real world of gray. It's when those two worlds meet, when his new acquaintances try to gently blur his palette that "Into the Wild" excels.
When, for instance, aging hippie chick Jan (a soul-weary free spirit played by Catherine Keener) looks at him after hearing his story and says, "You look like a loved kid. Be fair," she says it with the pain of a mother whose own son vanished two years earlier.
Or when retiree Ron Franz (played with a soft crust by Hal Holbrook) asks where McCandless' family is and the 23-year-old replies, "I don't have one any more," Franz offers a barely perceptible flinch that runs deep. He later tells McCandless that he lost his wife and son to a drunken driver in 1957, then makes a desperate offer to adopt McCandless.
These aren't heartstrings-yanking moments, but rather, moments given that extra moment to mature by very patient director Sean Penn.
Not long after McCandless set out to find the truth, he decided to change his name, to Alexander Supertramp. At movie's end, when it becomes clear his journey is near its end, he hints at whether he has found what he was searching for by heeding the advice of a plant identification book he'd picked up: to always call each thing by its right name.
And again, he became Christopher Johnson McCandless.