Dir: Sean Penn. US. 2007. 148mins.
Sean Penn's fourth feature as a director is as exhilarating as it is unwieldy, a sprawling hymn to nature, humanity and personal freedom which firmly establishes the much-feted actor as a film-maker of vision. Shining an affectionate light on the drifters and counter-culturalists living in today's heartland, the film is destined to win a loyal if specialized audience following among smart liberals and the college crowd drawn by the true story and images of the topographical splendour of their otherwise beleaguered country .

Strong reviews coming out of Telluride and Toronto festival screenings will position the film as a choice upscale item in the fall season and possible awards attention for Penn and his virtuoso lead actor Emile Hirsch. International audiences will be less likely to embrace the demanding two-and-a-half-hour movie, and any significant box office will be dependent on awards heat and, in the absence of major stars in the cast, Penn's availability to publicise the film - historically never his favourite pastime.

Based on the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer, Into The Wild is the story of 22 year-old Christopher McCandless, who abandoned his family and affluent life in the early 1990s and roamed the countryside for over a year, a wanderer rejecting the financial pressures and social demands of life in America today. His ultimate goal was to live alone off the land in the wilds of Alaska, an ambition which he realized for over 100 days before tragedy struck.

Although a true story, the film is also a throwback of sorts to a brand of 70s road movie - Bound For Glory, Five Easy Pieces, Jeremiah Johnson - which roamed the landscapes of the US, while remaining politically animated and socially aware. Penn, who also wrote the screenplay, adopts a freewheeling, back-and-forth structure to his story, starting with McCandless' arrival in the Alaskan wilderness, then reverting to his college graduation over a year previously where we meet his uptight parents Walt (Hurt) and Billie (Harden), and sister Carine (Malone). Shortly afterwards, he donated his savings of $24,000 to Oxfam and went AWOL, hitch-hiking across various states with a new identity ('Alexander Supertramp') and a determination to remain unencumbered by financial responsibilities or human connections.

He meets various people on the road - the free spirited crook Wayne (Vaughn), for whom he works on a South Dakota farm, a hippie gypsy couple Rainey (Dierker) and Jan (Keener) who develop an almost parental relationship with him, the 16 year-old Tracy (Stewart) whom he meets in a California RV camp, and the aging widower Ron Franz (Holbrook) with whom he develops a warm friendship. These episodes, all leading towards Alaska, are interspersed with Chris' life in the wilderness, based in a deserted bus ('The Magic Bus'), his foraging for food, his small triumphs and frustrations as he pursues a life on the land and alone. The story frequently returns to his parents, whose narcissism and deceptions were clearly the root of Chris' disappearance. As all their attempts to locate him hit dead-ends, they are plunged into a misery from which they cannot recover.

The style is initially jarring. Like a scrapbook, Penn uses all manner of visual and aural bric-a-brac - Chris' handwriting on screen, an occasional, too-literate narration from Malone, a handful of plaintive songs by Eddie Vedder - to tell his story. But after half an hour, the messy collage coheres, as a clearer picture of the young man emerges. His actions are callous and his motivations probably childish - disillusionment with parents - but his sheer chutzpah, single-mindedness and good humour win us over. His final realization that life is only worthwhile if shared with other humans may sound obvious but is so moving here because he only reaches this conclusion on his own terms, and sadly too late for him to return from the wild.

Anchoring the story is Hirsch, a fearless young actor whose good looks and charisma are essential in explaining why people are drawn to McCandless. It's one of those physical performances - not only does he have to kayak through rapids and climb mountains, but lose half his bodyweight - that wins awards.

Most memorable in the supporting cast is veteran actor Hal Holbrook who could also score awards buzz as the solitary old man whose encounter with Chris changes his own perspectives on life. When he asks Alexander Supertramp if he can adopt him on his return from Alaska, Holbrook reminds us why he is such an enduring actor. It's the film's most moving scene.

Production companies
Paramount Vantage
River Road Entertainment

US distribution
Paramount Vantage

International distribution
Paramount Pictures International

Executive producers
John J Kelly
Frank Hildebrand
David Blocker

Sean Penn
Art Linson
Bill Pohlad

Sean Penn
Based on the book by Jon Krakauer

Director of photography
Eric Gautier

Production designer
Derek R Hill

Jay Cassidy

Michael Brook
Kaki King
Eddie Vedder

Main cast
Emile Hirsch
Hal Holbrook
Catherine Keener
Brian Dierker
Vince Vaughn
William Hurt
Marcia Gay Harden
Jena Malone
Kristen Stewart