An amazing amount of speculative effort has gone into explaining the journey of Chris McCandless, a 24-year-old Emory College graduate who wandered into the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992 and died there four months later.
First, there was an article in Outside magazine by Jon Krakauer, then Krakauer’s 1996 best seller “Into the Wild,” and now Sean Penn’s stunningly photographed, overly romanticized adaptation of the book.
Krakauer and Penn see themselves as kindred spirits to McCandless, rugged individualists seeking the fullness of life in nature. And that probably explains why they both attribute McCandless’ reckless adventures to a philosophical quest rather than to what appears to be an obvious act of youthful rebellion.
McCandless, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, hated his father, a NASA scientist who had a child by his first wife after Chris and his sister were born to the second, and he judged and rejected everything his father represented – most particularly, his wealth and materialism.
After graduation at Emory, Chris destroyed his ID cards and headed west for the life of a vagabond and itinerant worker who called himself Alexander Supertramp. Neither his parents nor the sister he claimed to love ever heard from him again.
Penn’s time line skips from the Alaskan wilderness, where Chris settles into an abandoned bus, to flashbacks of his troubled home life and his earlier adventures on the road.
Hirsch, who lost 40 pounds for the disturbing final scenes, gives a terrific performance, as do Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker, as the middle-aged hippies Chris befriends, and the wonderful Hal Holbrook, playing an old man who wants to adopt him.
However, Penn is projecting heroic qualities onto a young guy who simply got in over his head. As Krakauer discovered, Chris was within easy walking distance of a park service cable spanning the raging river that had trapped him on the other side.
That he never discovered this himself during four months in the wild points to the ultimate irony of his story. When he found a home that suited him – the abandoned bus – he couldn’t leave it.