Every one of us at times hears the call of the wild, to match the wild of the outdoors to the wild that is inside us, to leave behind all of the petty complications of civilization and test ourselves down to the deepest essence, to test our nature, in both senses of the word.
In 1992 Christopher McCandless left behind everything — family, friends, jobs, money, even his name, and went on a journey to find something that felt authentic to him. Actor Sean Penn has written and directed a superb film based on the best-selling book about his journey and its tragic conclusion.
Emile Hirsch plays McCandless, who whimsically renames himself Alexander Supertramp. He walks away from the expectations that felt smothering to him after graduation with honors. He walks away from possessions, donating all of his money to charity and cutting up his credit cards and ID. He walks away from a family that felt disconnected from its outward appearance.
And he walks toward…he is not sure. Something different. Something else. He says he is an “aesthetic voyager whose home is the road” and goes off in search of “ecstatic freedom” to on a “dramatic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual resolution.” His sister says, “It was inevitable he would walk away and do it with characteristic immoderation.” He says, “I don’t need money; it makes people cautious.”
His encounters along the way are in the great tradition of odysseys from Jack London to Jack Kerouac. He meets up with warm-hearted hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) and a lonely retired military man (Hal Holbrook, in a performance sure to win him an Oscar nomination). For a while, he works for a grain dealer (Vince Vaughn). Every encounter, even a brief conversation with an intake clerk at a homeless shelter, is meticulous and thoughtful. Penn’s sensitive screenplay and Hirsch’s engaging performance show us McCandless’s combination of longing for the biggest emotions and his ability to appreciate the smallest moments, his ability to connect to the subtlest signals from the widest range of people and to the grandest scope of nature.
He is a listener of extraordinary empathy and compassion. After the character played by Keener tells him her story, he says, “We could go eat. Or, I could sit here all night and listen to you.” When a beautiful young girl (Kristen Stewart) offers herself to him, he gently declines. It would not be right for her. Also, like money, love makes people cautious, too, and he is not ready to be cautious yet.
At times, the film comes close to romanticizing McCandless and his quest. But it is anything but romantic in its harrowing final weeks, when he is alone in the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless, whether from hubris, foolishness, immaturity, self-destructiveness, or some combination of the three, makes poor choices that lead to his death from starvation and eating toxic berries. The images of Hirsch, scared and skeletal, are harrowing. Penn, whose previous films as director and screenwriter also focused on lost children and the devastated families, makes us wish up to the last minute for a happier ending.
McCandless liked to quote Thoreau: “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” But Thoreau also said that there was a time to go to Walden and a time to leave. It is a tragedy that McCandless was not able to return to tell his own story. But Penn, Hirsch, and cinematographer Eric Gautier (who also filmed another real-life story of a young man’s journey, The Motorcycle Diaries) have brought his story to the screen with honor and grace.
Parents should know that this is a sad movie with graphic depiction of death by starvation and ingestion of poisonous berries. There are bloody scenes of animals being shot, gutted, and cooked. A character is brutally beaten. There is male and female non-sexual nudity and there are sexual references and situations, including references to adultery. When a young girl offers to have sex with Christopher/Alex, he declines for honorable reasons. Characters use strong language and drink, smoke, and use drugs.
Families who see this movie should talk about what Chris/Alex was looking for and whether he found it.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate the book and an article by the same author. They will also appreciate two outstanding documentaries about men who went out into the wild, Touching the Void and Grizzly Man. They should also read the poem Chris quotes to his sister, I Go Back to May 1937 by Sharon Olds. And they will enjoy my interview with star Emile Hirsch.