Director Sean Penn’s poetic retelling of the noble journey of Chris McCandless relies a lot on the faith of its audience. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a university graduate who completed his studies merely to fulfil a conventional path – to end a chapter of his life which had become increasingly meaningless to him.
He then shrugged off the conformities of a society he deplored to live alone, traveling in whichever direction the wind blew him, but ending in the stark and confining wilderness of Alaska.
Donating his savings account to charity, burning his cash and adopting the unlikely moniker of ‘Alexander Supertramp’, McCandless cut all ties with his parents and sister, leaving behind not a clue as to where his calling might take him.
Assuming this new identity, he simply sought to embrace the transparency of living life without need or desire for material possessions and the complications of relationships, saving his sense of communion for nature and a much higher power.
Penn’s film is a testament to the courage of this young man’s will, his determination to make his everyday existence a proclaimation of his beliefs. Admittedly it does, at times, also feel as if he’s attributing McCandless the grace of a martyr, a man who sits above others in a purer state.
Pleading to the spiritual conflict in us all, he enwraps this tortured young man with an extended, though perhaps false, awareness of the universe – one defined more by its rugged and raw challenges and watched over by an all-encompassing God whose whims can affect the outcome of our lives at any time.
Penn’s brilliant direction certainly makes a persuasive case for healing in this acknowledgment of a higher power whilst employing the startlingly brilliant cinematography of Frenchman Eric Gautier, and the acoustic score of Michael Brook which is seamlessly supported by some decent original songs from Eddie Vedder.
he use of voiceover casts a dreamy, unnatural light over the journey of McCandless, but at the same time provides some of the most pointed revelations, probing into his psyche and examining the possible impetus powering his radical odyssey into the unknown.
I especially liked the narration of sister Carine (Jena Malone), who objectively relays the deteriorating circumstances back home in the wake of Chris’s strange and sudden absence, the ripple effect creates, and insights into the turbulence that has defined this family beneath its facade of normality, including the overbearing, abusive betrayal of trust by their parents, Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden), who still cling to each other in hatred, battering one another for answers that will never reveal themselves.
Penn’s screenplay, in adapting Jon Krakauer’s book, helps enrich the narrative with the interesting characters Alex meets on his travels. Especially noteworthy are Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as former hippies whose relationship has weathered some brutal storms of its own, and Kristen Stewart as a singer and underage, potential love interest for Alex.
Best of all, there’s Hal Holbrook as Ron Franz, a broken down old man whose own ties to the world have faded rather than been severed, and who sees the vestige of a possible surrogate son in Alex, a last remaining hope to carry his name onward beyond his imminent death.
The pair forms an unlikely but immediate bond in their limited time together before Alex sets off with a promise to consider Mr. Franz’s heartbreaking proposal; their last scene is one of the best in the film and possibly the reason why Holbrook was nominated for an Oscar aged 82, the oldest ever to receive such an honour.