I was really moved by this movie, which is surprising, in a way, because I'm rarely moved when I find the main character to be a bit of a wank. Well, he grew on me by the end.
Based on a true story, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) shakes off his responsibilities, his overbearing parents, donates all of his savings to OXFAM and heads out on the road. He renames himself Alex Supertramp, and disappears into a new life of a vagrant. Chris is disillusioned by society, his family, the system and sees Alaska, his ultimate destination, as a place where he can somehow be cleansed. One of the more interesting aspects of the movie is how Penn shows the outsider kind of life that exists in America. People that live in moveable communities, drive RVs, live on the land, ride the rails. One of the people he meets is an old man played by Hal Holbrook, in an Oscar-nominated turn. The scene in which he offers to adopt Chris and "be kind of like a grandfather" to him is really beautiful work.
One of Penn's best decisions is to cut back and forth between Chris' road adventures and journey to Alaska, and Chris actually living alone in the bush. He finds an abandoned bus that he calls the Magic Bus, and tries to live off the land. Acting alone is tricky, and Hirsch does a really excellent job of becoming more frantic and more delusional, as "the wild" turns out to be more than he can handle. It is truly heart wrenching.
It's really quite selfish what he does. Chris abandoned his family and while his parents were arguably deserving of it, he was very close to his sister, but he iced her out as well. The relationships he makes on the road are what sustain him, but Chris doesn't realize just how unforgiving nature can be.
The quest narrative is not an uncommon one. Chris McCandless is not the first young man, unsatisfied with his life, who wanted something more, to go back to the land. It's a romantic notion, and the film does a good job of showing the reality of it and the tragedy of it.
It is a beautiful film, with rousing songs by Eddie Vedder.
I found this on Youtube, a 20/20 segment about the real Chris McCandless from 1997. His story was first told in Outdoor Magazine in the early 90s and it garnered a huge response from readers. Some responding to his desire to be out on the land, others calling him a reckless idiot.