In the North, peril can strike anyone in the summer, or the winter. But when Christopher McCandless died at the age of 24 in August, in an abandoned bus near Denali Park in Alaska, apparently of starvation, the response was intensely mixed: bewilderment, contempt, and for some, awe.
Many people have known someone bright, charismatic, and reckless like Christopher McCandless, perhaps especially those of us who live north of 60. Jon Krakauer, a mountain climber and sports writer, followed his own acute empathy with McCandless, tracking his steps from his home in Virginia to Alaska for his book Into the Wild. A film based on the book, written and directed by Sean Penn and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, was released in 2007.
With college completed, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) leaves his comfortable family home, and overbearing father (William Hurt), for a trip across the country. When his car is lost in a fl ood, he commits to the life of the vagabond, burning his money and ID and renaming himself Alexander Supertramp.
Much of Into the Wild is a road movie, following McCandless’s eccentric path through the backroads and waterways of America — at one point he kayaks to Mexico and walks back over the border. As he travels, he becomes increasingly enamored with the idea of living even more minimally, finally fixating on the North — where he can challenge himself in the last true wilderness. As he’s pulled by this impulse, he gently extricates himself from any potential attachments, which are many, because the charming, idealistic McCandless has a way of working his way into the hearts of people he encounters.
He bonds with road warriors Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker), then they part ways. He stops in South Dakota to earn some money, working for wild man Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn) on his farming operation. Then he moves on and meets up with Jan and Rainey again in the transient community of Slab City, California.
We see the protagonist through their eyes; they’re the link between Christopher McCandless and Alexander Supertramp.
The energy and spirit of the non-conformist couple lend lightness to the fi lm, but as McCandless draws closer to his departure, melancholy settles on his friends, most affectingly seen in Ron Franz (Hol Holbrook), a retired widower who offers to adopt him.
Emile Hirsche’s performance as Christopher McCandless is as uncompromising and unsparing as McCandless himself, transforming from the young outdoorsman and philosopher to the wiser man who comes to an almost mystical acceptance of his circumstances. “I have lived a happy life”, McCandless wrote near the end.
You might wonder if that was true. But Sean Penn, as Jon Krakauer did before him, gives a fitting tribute to the adventurous puzzle that was Christopher McCandless, the people who loved him, and the wild country that captured him.