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Into the Wild

The Contenders

Release date: Sept. 21 Distributor: Paramount Vantage

“Emotional mosaic” isn’t exactly the kind of phrase that screams out boffo box office or a big Oscar haul, but given the accolades writer-director Sean Penn has received for “Into the Wild,” a precise yet heart-wrenching study of a fragile adventurer, where there’s art, there’s hope.

Pic is adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book based on the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who finishes college and begins a dangerous but invigorating life quest across America.

Penn directs with acute attention to the details that make up his lead character’s troubled psyche as well as the encounters along life’s highway that serve as his personal stations of the cross. These roadside pauses involve odd jobs, freight-train hopping and a doomed encounter with the Alaskan wilderness, but not all is heavy-going, even if one can feel the darkness closing in.

Strong supporting actors such as Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and a luminous Hal Holbrook humanize the foolhardy lad’s journey and also give it a grandeur, as each sees in him the vision of purity and adventure that pushes him on toward the unforgiving Northern terrain that proves his undoing.

Eddie Vedder’s music is a perfect complement to the wistful yet earnest nature of McCandless’ voyage. And d.p. Eric Gautier valiantly captures the fragility of life on a really harsh road — especially when that road turns wet and the d.p. must brave whitewater along with director and star.

Hirsch has clearly proved that his strong work in such films as “Lords of Dogtown” and “Alpha Dog” was only the beginning of an exciting career, while Penn’s work seems like a discovery itself. One might have expected the stormy Penn to sympathetically direct the tale of a headstrong loner, but who could have expected one of the most complex and powerful screenplays of the year from Penn’s pen?

See photos, trailer and more on ‘Into the Wild’

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