Still a timeless classic.
After graduating from college in the Spring of 1990, Christopher McCandless, a young man from a wealthy but dysfunctional family, went out to dinner with his parents and discussed his plans for law school. They ended the evening on polite, encouraging terms. The next day, McCandless withdrew all of his savings and donated it to Oxfam, cut up his IDs, burned his cash, and headed west in his aging Datsun for an intended spiritual journey. The Datsun didn’t make it very far. Rechristening himself as Alexander Supertramp, the boy hitchhiked across the country for the next two years, never contacting anyone from his old life again. An intellectual with a fondness for the writings of Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the adventure stories of Jack London, “Alex” had grown increasingly disillusioned with what he considered modern society’s materialistic and hypocritical values.
Heeding romantic notions of living a solitary existence communing with nature, he sought to flee from the poisons of civilization, retreating to the wilds of Alaska where he could enthusiastically test his mettle and push his body and mind to their limits. He eventually made it there in April of 1992 and lived for the next four months in an abandoned bus in the woods that had previously been used as a hunters’ shelter. He spent the time foraging for edible plants and small game, talking to himself a lot, and keeping a journal of his quest for enlightenment. His dead body was found by moose hunters in September of that year, emaciated to 67 pounds.
As depicted in the book and film, McCandless wasn’t an antisocial Unabomber hermit, but rather an idealistic, somewhat confused, and frankly naïve kid trying to find his place in life. During his cross-country trip, he spent a great deal of time in the company of people whose forthrightness or free-spirited natures he admired, including a pair of traveling hippies (played by Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a gregarious South Dakota wheat farmer (Vince Vaughn), and a lonely retiree (Hal Holbrook). Alex became part of each of their families, but in the end his mission pushed him away from them, driving him to spend the rest of his life alone.
Ever since Krakauer’s book was published, it’s been surrounded by accusations of needlessly romanticizing Christopher McCandless and the events leading to his death. Sean Penn’s adaptation will no doubt polarize some viewers as well. The author and director clearly believe McCandless to be a sympathetic character, worthy of an audience’s emotional involvement. On the other hand, many familiar with the story, especially those that understand a thing or two about wilderness survival, consider him just a stupid kid who threw his life away, essentially committing suicide through his own reckless ignorance. In truth, both points of view have their merits, and are not necessarily opposed to each other.
Like many his age, the boy’s youthful arrogance fostered a sense of invulnerability, strengthened further after surviving a dangerous kayaking adventure down the Colorado River despite having no experience. Bringing nothing but a bag of rice, a book on local plants, and a .22 caliber rifle, he was certain that he’d be able to sustain himself for an extended duration alone.
Obviously, he was wrong, and if he’d taken the time to properly prepare might have survived the ordeal. But it’s precisely these flaws in his character, and his inability to recognize them until it was too late to save himself, that makes his story a genuine tragedy. If McCandless had walked out of those woods alive, would there even be a story worth telling?
Setting aside his own public personality as a loud-mouth political activist, Penn has a highly regarded reputation as both an actor and a director, and treats the material with respect and sensitivity. He wisely underplays the potentially melodramatic aspects of the story and draws strong performances from his cast. Although backed by a stellar list of co-stars (Hal Holbrook scored an Oscar nomination for his role), the main burden of the movie falls on the shoulders of Emile Hirsch, the young actor from ‘The Girl Next Door’ and ‘Alpha Dog’, who spends much of his screen time completely alone on camera, doing a remarkable job of drawing the audience into the mind of the character.
Lovely photography and an understated musical score enhance the sense of atmosphere, as do an assortment of new songs by Eddie Vedder, whose grizzled ballads of alienation and rebellion are exactly the sort of thing that McCandless would have considered personal anthems. Penn has taken a fascinating story and crafted it into a beautiful tone poem, an elegy for lost innocence, and a heartbreaking motion picture.