Talk about heart-on-your-sleeve cinema. Sean Penn uses cinema as an alternative to the analyst’s couch in this adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book, which details the fatal journey of Christopher McCandless, a 22-year-old graduate from a comfortable Virginian background who, in 1990, gave his $24,000 savings to Oxfam, hit the road and wandered through California, Arizona and South Dakota before hitchhiking to Alaska, where he ate the wrong berries and died in a rusty old schoolbus in which he’d been camping between hunting moose, dodging bears and reading too much Jack London.
Penn shows an abnormal amount of sympathy for McCandless (Emile Hirsch) – think, in British terms, a literate public-schoolboy with a sneering towards the conventional; he even says, ‘I think careers are a twentieth-century invention’ – and his McCandless is a Messianic figure who pounds the open road, leaving behind nothing but goodwill whether he encounters troubled hippies (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), hormonal teenagers (Kristen Stewart) or ‘lonely’ – McCandless’ own poisonous word, not mine – old men such as the one played very sweetly by Hal Holbrook. The story of McCandless is obviously fascinating, but Penn is so uncritical that he leaves us little room to judge for ourselves whether his subject – or, more fittingly, his muse? – is enlightened, arrogant or both.
Everything else is deftly handled: Eric Gautier’s photography is beautiful, the pace is swift, Hirsch gives a terrific performance and Penn’s script moves back and forth neatly between the past and the present, cleverly using the bridge of a voiceover from McCandless’ sister (Jena Malone) to sketch a troubled family background. More than anything, the film reminds me of a time when, aged 17, I set off for the Forest of Dean to camp out in the wild, inspired somehow by the recent death of Dennis Potter. We arrived at night, pitched camp and woke in the morning to find we were sleeping next to a busy dog-walking path. One man’s wilderness is another man’s backyard. If only Penn had kept that more in mind.