I am trying very hard to keep my philosophical objections to Into the Wild from leaving me incapable of thinking critically about its actual quality as a film, and I'm finding it very difficult; writer-director Sean Penn is clearly very invested in his themes, and very anxious that we the audience should be overwhelmed by them. I find that I am only somewhat whelmed - or rather, I am overwhelmed by the intensity of theme, and underwhelmed by the sophomoric content thereof, and so I end up in the middle, sort of whelm-neutral.

Based on Jon Kraukauer's book based on a true story, Into the Wild is the story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) who, after graduating from Emory in 1990, disappeared to go on a two-year journey through the American West, Mexico, and Alaska, ultimately dying of starvation in a bus. He does this because he believes that it is only by renouncing the worldly and giving himself over to nature that he will be able to find spiritual transcendence, and in this he is inspired by Henry Thoreau and the late works of Leo Tolstoy, the first of whom spent most of Walden lying about being a hermit and the second of whom only wrote about renouncing human things after a lifetime of being a Russian aristocrat.

The curious thing about the movie is that it makes no effort to hide the fact that Chris is wrong: besides the fact that he ultimately dies, he meets several people along his journey, all of them serving as surrogate families, and yet he keeps on with his refrain that to truly live, he must go on alone to Alaska, without any hint of evidence that any of the many people he meets are even moderately unhappy. But the way the film is shot (I haven't read the book) makes it clear that Chris has access to deep and abiding truths that all of us should aspire to: there are gawking backlit shots that make him seem godly, and at least two moments where he is explicitly being made to look Christlike.

White children of moneyed backgrounds often, in my observation, think that the only way that they can bring meaning to their lives is to throw off the shackles of behaving like a member of civilized society, which is all a bit appallingly selfish when you get right down to it (I wouldn't go so far as to call it Objectivist, but it's awfully similar). Chris McCandless isn't a role model: he's a bit of a jerk, treating most of his friends shabbily and his parents (to whom Penn added a neat-o abuse plotline, apparently worrying that we'd sympathise with them) worse. And he's a bloody fool: he knows not one thing about outdoorsmanship, and he died less than a mile from a tram line where he would have found rescue, if only he'd had a map of the area. I couldn't help but think of another film about an idealist who got in trouble from romanticising the Alaskan wilderness, Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, but while that film was almost comically happy to indict the protagonist's idiocy, Penn clearly expects us to regard McCandless's fate as a beautiful tragedy.

Anyway, that's the part I didn't want to talk about.

Instead, the film as a film: which is not awful per se, although it suffers quite badly from the director's childlike enthusiasm for his subject. Put frankly, I have hardly ever seen a film so little thought-out as Into the Wild, which jams incoherent styles together like Play-Doh molded into some monstrous chimera of cinematic technique. There is no overriding sensibility that guides the film, only impulses that change from scene to scene and occasionally between shots. I gather that Penn had a great many tricks he wanted to try out, and he used them whenever he got the chance, whether it fit right or not. So we have rigidly balanced compositions bumping up against handheld documentary-style footage next to regular old Hollywood shot-reverse shot, and I don't even know what he was trying to pull with the constantly changing depth-of-field and inconsistent focus.

One scene stands out such that I must bring it up: Chris sits by the side of the road, eating an apple, and addressing it with apple-based puns. That, I think, is a bad scene. Meanwhile, Penn shoots it as a series of jump cuts. That actually makes it a wee bit better. Then someone (Chris or Emile Hirsch, I can't quite say) looks straight into the camera and waggles his eyebrows. That is unspeakably evil. It might well be the worst moment in the film, but somehow not inexplicable: the director is too unmoored for even batshit craziness like this to register as overreach.

On the other hand, the film is impossibly gorgeous, as shot by Eric Gautier, who has made a career out of gorgeous movies that are kind of bad in all other ways (his last project to make much impact in this country was the pancake-flat Che biopic The Motorcycle Diaries). Many of the very same decisions that make the drama so inscrutable (slow-motion, extensive use of godlike sun) make for some damn pretty shots. A while ago, I drew a distinction between cinematography that is a vital component of the story, and cinematography that is simply lovely to look at, and Gautier's work here is the purest and most beautiful example of the second type that I have seen all year.

As for the acting: we now have something that I would have assumed couldn't exist, an ensemble film in which Kristen Stewart gives the finest performance. That veteran of such actorly milestones as The Messengers and In the Land of Women plays a teenage hippie chanteuse who falls a little bit in love with Chris, but cannot dissuade him from his myopic quest, and she brings all the qualities to the role that you could hope for: fresh sexuality, hurt pride, quiet longing. Watching her is easily the highlight of the film. Other standouts in the cast include Catherine Keener (unsurprisingly) and Brien Dierker, a nonactor, as the hippie couple that provides Chris with his first surrogate family. Hal Holbrook's much ballyhooed turn as an old non-hippie actually left me a little cold, but I think that might have been primarily because I was so shocked that the film actually endorsed Chris's scheme of bullying the old man into risking a heart attack to prove that he wasn't chicken, that I wasn't really paying close attention.

Then, there are the two centerpieces: Emile Hirsch and Jena Malone as Chris's sister Carine. In an effort to ratchet up the cod-philosophy and retain the bookish nature of the story, Penn gives Carine unfathomable blocks of florid narration, most of which revolve around the concept that "our parents sucked nuggets, so the fact that Chris has abandoned everything in life is not merely defensible but noble." Which isn't so bad in and of itself, but the lines she is given to say are ponderous and much too taken with their own profundity. For two-and-a-half hours, we are forced to listen to Malone drone on and on with the most dreadful pseudo-emo pseudo-poetry imaginable. I do not blame Malone - the narration is nigh unto unreadable - but by the end of the film, I found myself hoping that I would never have to hear her speak again ever.

Hirsch, I will make no such excuses for. Chris McCandless is a perfect blank slate, in a way: everything we know about him was filtered through two or three or four other sources, and that means that he should be playable in just about any way the actor chooses. Hirsch makes no choice, leaving a completely empty figure at the center of a movie that desperately needs a dynamic central personality. It's not that he's unappealing or even uncharismatic (it is at any rate not hard to figure out why people fall a tiny bit in love with him), but in the moments when it's just him and the camera and the road, there's a great big nothing staring back at us. His performance is just as aimless and meandering as the rest of the film, and therefore it is precisely what the film deserves and much, much less than the film requires.