2007. Starring Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener. Directed by Sean Penn.
In 1992, Christopher McCandless graduated from college and began a mission — the point of which has since become the speculation of a best-seller written by Jon Krakauer and a film by Sean Penn. His journey winds through the American Southwest, to the corn fields of the Dakotas, but always — as he reminds everyone throughout the film — to Alaska. There he would he would finally escape other humans, then discover how much he needs them.
McCandless, here portrayed by Emile Hirsch, comes off as wise-beyond-his-years free spirit and an inspiration to those he encounters on his travels. He shows old hippies how to love again, he teaches a lonely widower to live again, and he throws cold water on the passion of a too-young folksinger.
The portrayal of this flawed character tempts a person to explain why he needed to get away from it all. He may have been running from a preprogrammed life that would begin after graduation, or to repair a disconnection with nature that he felt masked greater truths in life. The film suggests a moderately dysfunctional home life (though the petty and immature squabbles his parents — portrayed by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden — don’t seem traumatizing enough to make a child leave home forever without a word of goodbye.)
Sean Penn’s direction is warm and admiring, Hirsch is very likeable, and the locations are beautiful. McCandless’ meandering trail — hiking through the desert, kayaking through the Grand Canyon, hitchhiking across country — looks like a lot of fun. We don’t meet unfriendly folks along the road (even the immigration officers help him out), the weather’s almost always nice, and McCandless doesn’t seem to suffer from all the rough traveling. And that’s where I find the appeal in his story.
Everyone is capable of wanderlust. There’s endless romance in traveling the way the river flows, sleeping under the stars, seeing the untouched world with our own eyes (although the flight paths overhead keep closing in on McCandless). It’s easy to fall in love with the natural world.
But the really impressive thing about all that beautiful nature is that it’s more than willing to kill you. But like the “kind warrior” Timothy Treadwell in Werner Herzog’s disturbing Grizzly Man, I think Christopher McCandless was too much in love with nature to be properly afraid of it.