Though Sean Penn has the capacity to get some people's backs up because of a certain perceived self-righteousness, there's no doubting his commitment as a filmmaker to probing complex moral issues that touch on contemporary concerns. His protagonists tend to be torn, fallible men, outsiders who are prone to obsessive behaviour as they struggle to give meaning to their lives. In previous Penn-directed films, his leads have been caught between responsibility and recklessness (The Indian Runner), revenge and forgiveness (The Crossing Guard), and moral duty and human weakness (The Pledge).
In Into The Wild, Penn returns to these themes in a gripping examination of a modern-day searcher who abandons civilization in a quest for personal truth. But while Penn's previous works have at times taken themselves a little too seriously, here there's a welcome lightness of touch and a freewheeling expansiveness that signal a developing ease behind the camera.
Based on the eponymous non-fiction bestseller by Jon Krakauer, Penn's movie tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless (Hirsch), a 22-year-old upper middle class graduate who feels trapped by the greed and hypocrisy he sees in the society around him. Determined to create a new life for himself, he gives his $24,000 college fund to charity, cuts himself off from his family, abandons his car, christens himself 'Alexander Supertramp' and hits the road in a journey that culminates in the frozen wilds of Alaska.
In a series of well-observed vignettes, we see him take to the hobo life, hitching and hiking his way through the backwoods of America, jumping trains and working in dead-end jobs, encountering an oddball collection of countercultural drifters on the way.
Little by little, as he strips away the chains that bind him to his old life, he gropes towards an understanding of what he is searching for. Smarting from the pain and hurt of his childhood, he is convinced that being alone and surviving alone are fundamental truths. "Don't rely on other people for happiness," he warns one of the characters he meets on the road. But later, in the film's most electrifying moment, when his Alaskan adventure starts to turn sour, he comes to a devastating conclusion too late to be able to do anything about it.
Emile Hirsch is a revelation as Alex, managing to capture the passion, stubbornness, idealism and magnetism that seems to have driven the real McCandless and left such an indelible mark on the people who knew him. The rest of the cast offer superb back-up, with fleeting but beautifully nuanced performances from William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as a father and mother slowly being consumed by despair; a charismatic turn from Vince Vaughan as a renegade farm manager; and a superb study in vulnerability and yearning from Hal Holbrook as a lonely old man whose life is transformed by meeting Alex.
On a couple of occasions, the spiritual and intellectual insights are laid on a little thick, but there is enough meat on the bone of Alex's anti-materialist philosophy - an engaging mishmash of Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London with a bit of 1960s idealism thrown in - to prompt a measure of self-reflection among viewers.
To his credit, Penn resists sentimentalising the natural world which is shown in all its unforgiving savagery. Stunning natural cinematography and sharp editing help to deliver some startling sequences of a man alone in the wilderness. And the simple natural images - raindrops on leaves, sunlight falling through forests, a herd of galloping horses - infuse the proceedings with a spiritual edge that manages to steer clear of hippyish nonsense.
There are one or two faintly mawkish moments when Penn's otherwise well-crafted script oversteps the mark, and a sequence that attempts to underline the alienated grimness of America's urban ghettoes comes across in overly broad brushstrokes, but these are no more than quibbles in an otherwise excellent film.
If there is a weakness it is the fact that Penn refuses properly to interrogate the darker, selfish motivations that drove McCandless to cut off the family that loved him and Penn has already attracted criticism from those who feel he has romanticised the life of a spoilt narcissist who came a cropper only because of his own blind stupidity.
In a nutshell: Penn's best movie to date rests on a brilliant performance by Hirsch, who gets under the skin of the fascinating character at the centre of the piece. But whether you ultimately see McCandless as a basket case, searcher, aesthete or environmental visionary, his journey is one that is definitely worth taking with him.
By Jamie McLeish