Sean Penn’s latest from the director’s chair is long and occasionally bumpy, but in the end, stands as one of the most striking portraits of self-delusion in years. It’s not a perfect film, nor is it necessarily the one I envision, for it is quite clear that Penn admires Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), the self-righteous young man who deserted his privileged background in order to live a more “authentic” dream among raw, unspoiled nature.
Penn’s sympathies are understandable, of course, given his own rambunctious public life, but despite Chris’ obnoxious manner, he does not saddle the film with a naïve romanticism. Clearly, this kid — who later refashioned himself as “Alexander Supertramp” — is taking a hissy fit against his hypocritical parents to the next level (I never once believed he was that fond of the outdoors) and in the final analysis, he was willing to die rather than admit that his life was hardly the hopeless tragedy he had imagined (or sold as a bill of goods to himself and anyone who cared to listen).
Penn recreates some of Chris’ past, but are official lies and evasions enough to push a young man over the edge? Like so many, Chris failed to recognize any truth in his surroundings until it was too late (he quotes the poets again and again on this front), and when word and deed failed to meet in the middle, he became disillusioned.
It’s a common affliction, this fall from that lofty perch of youthful idealism, but only possible for one untainted by the leveling effect of cynicism. Keep your parents in perspective, grant them the right to fail, and perhaps you won’t despise them so much when they inevitably let you down.
Penn’s film is, in many ways, a prototypical road movie, though it’s not hampered by the genre’s familiarity, largely because the result is so relentlessly grim. Chris meets all kinds of people along the way, including well-meaning hippies, fellow travelers, and yes, even the Wise Old Man (Hal Holbrook, who deserves, and will likely get, an Oscar nomination).
Chris even has the expected romance, though it’s more a one-sided crush, as he exhibits restraint when he learns the girl’s age. Throughout, Chris is largely unknowable, as those he encounters project their own longings onto the boy and his quest. Most people seem to have this unquenchable thirst that would lead them to uncharted waters, but once you’ve “escaped,” what’s left to prove? It’s all in the desire — the wishing, the hoping, the longing — and the realization is at best an anticlimax.
There’s a bit of that with Chris’ adventure, especially when he arrives in Alaska, the destination to which everything else has been leading. Once he reaches that abandoned bus, starts gathering plants and firewood, and is forced to fend for himself at last, we see the romance ebb from the young man’s eyes, even if he won’t fully come to terms with the bitter truth.
If he was, in fact, living as he proclaimed, he would do more than reveal fear in his diary; he would empty his heart at last and admit his point has been made. Rebellion, even if undertaken with nobility and a fighting spirit, can never remain a permanent state of affairs. When attempted, it’s rarely inspiring and, as this film’s conclusion proves, always sad.