It almost seems like it’s a prerequisite for becoming an adult but most people I’ve talked with have had a similar feeling of restlessness following graduation when, after years of raising one’s hand and waiting for a hall pass to leave the room, there’s the unmistakable urge to break free, to wander, to explore, to see beauty in nature, and to stop worrying about the clock on the wall. For me it followed high school when my friend Shelley introduced me to Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan and I felt a sense of wonder I hadn’t encountered since I’d first read Steinbeck and Fitzgerald—a hopeful sense of idealism, an unquestioning love for the idea of the American dream, and an overwhelming sense of wanting to get out and see the gorgeous landscapes and talk to people just as people and not as clips on the news categorized into whatever stereotype the network has decided to spin that day.
While my destination of Arizona ended up becoming my new home after a traditional visit, I admit that, as bizarre and illogical as it is, there is something undeniably intoxicating about the journey that Christopher McCandless took following his graduation from Emory University in 1990. Even though, those familiar with the resulting novel by Jon Krakauer or from the media coverage, knew that his story ended tragically inside that Magic Bus in the Alaskan wilderness, there’s a haunting indescribable joy mixed with dread and sadness that comes from watching his tale realized on the big screen by a compassionate filmmaker in actor turned writer/director Sean Penn.
Penn, who’d wanted to make the film for more than ten years and originally had envisioned Leonardo DiCaprio in the role, waited for official permission and approval from the McCandless family according to IMDb and I think that the film benefits not only from the space in time from the day that Christopher fled Atlanta in his Datsun but also from Penn’s maturity and growth as an artist in his own right as I recall the multitude of characters, performances, directorial efforts and choices he’s made over the last ten years as well.
After only a few moments of watching actor Emile Hirsch disappear into the role of Christopher in a career making effort, it seems to be an absolute crime that he was denied a Best Actor nomination from the 2007 Oscar season. A gifted student with the promise of an even brighter future at Harvard Law School, Christopher makes a choice that seems to shock everyone but his loving sister Carine (Jena Malone) when he donates his professional school fund of $24,000 to Oxfam, uses a scissors to cut up his credit cards and identification and burns his social security card in an act of defiance before taking to the road. Inspired by his beloved books by Thoreau and London, Chris heads west until his car fails him in the unforgiving Arizona desert and begins to "hoof it," now as what hippies would later dub him in his role as a “leather-tramp.” Fitting to his newly dubbed name of Alexander Supertramp, the film, divided into chapters that illustrate his new life from birth, to adolescence, manhood etc. follows Chris/Alex as he meets some people who would become like a second family to him on the road including a terrific Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as hippies Jan and Rainey, a memorable Vince Vaughn as his farming boss in South Dakota whom he writes postcards to regularly throughout the film and countless others while his sister and parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) must contend with his absence without any explanation, save for the flashbacks showing a rather tumultuous upbringing with some abuse, rage and lies. In a truly heartbreaking and Oscar nominated role, Hal Holbrook plays a retired military veteran with a tragic past who grandfatherly looks after Chris before he ultimately heads north for his true destination of Alaska.
Soon the film, which has intercut his past travels for two years before making it to the bus which would be his final destination, meets up in the same timeline and it careens towards its chilling and desperate finale—yet there’s a beauty and a quiet to these moments that recall the wonder and innocent joy of the earlier work that keeps things bearable, despite viewers' underlying sense of dread.
Gorgeously photographed on the exact locations from the life of Chris McCandless with an unrecognizable Hirsch who, in his brave role lost not only forty pounds but also used no doubles or stuntmen in even the most dangerous of situations, it’s Penn’s greatest directorial achievement so far and manages to hook us completely after its stylistically uneven start with too many scrawled journal entries and notes moving across the canvas of the frame. With an undeniable nod to the road pictures of the 60’s and 70’s such as Easy Rider and Bound for Glory, Penn’s film is admirable and unique in the sense of it seeming like an actual document of a life and one that, unlike some of the more polished works of 2007, will not become dated with each passing year, kind of like the life of McCandless that will no doubt continue to fascinate and inspire for decades to come.