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'Into the Wild'

On graduating from college, Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave every penny of his life savings to charity, destroyed all his IDs and credit cards and headed off without a word to anyone to live by his wits in the Alaskan wilderness. His wits, unfortunately, failed him.

Jon Krakauer chronicled the story in the book Into the Wild, and after a decade spent negotiating with the McCandless family, Sean Penn has now filmed it. He'd originally wanted to cast Leonardo DiCaprio as the adventurous drifter, but as negotiations stalled, the actor aged past plausibility, so Penn ended up casting Emile Hirsch, who looks like a younger DiCaprio and acts like a younger Penn.

Hirsch's initially robust explorer is surrounded with a surprising number of stars, considering that this is basically a film about a loner. They include William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as the parents he can't wait to get away from, along with Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook among the many eccentrics he meets on his travels.

But the tale still rests on Hirsch's increasingly slender shoulders — the actor had to lose 40 lbs, or nearly a quarter of his body mass, to be able to play the final lost-and-starving scenes persuasively. And as he struggles with the elements, his increasing frailty and the cinematography's increasing grandeur mesh in a way that's at once iconic and wrenching.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.