It was fifteen years ago this month when the body of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a 24-year-old honors student from a well-to-do Virginia family, was discovered by moose hunters in an abandoned bus deep in the Alaskan wilderness. In the years since he died, McCandless’s life has become the stuff of legend, inspiring visitors from around the world to the site where he perished, a slew of pop songs, a magazine article by Jon Krakauer that he turned into a best-selling book, a documentary film, and now Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild” — a sweeping, rapturously shot visual poem about the nature of identity.

McCandless’s story goes like this. Upon graduation from Emory University in 1990, he gave his $24,000 in savings to charity, jumped into his old Datsun and, without telling a soul, hit the road. His destination was always Alaska, but in the two years prior he embarked on the ultimate hippie road trip: he abandoned his car in the Mojave Desert; burned all of his cash and identification; met and traveled with countless ‘tramps’; bought a canoe and paddled down the Colorado river into the Gulf of California; lived in communes in Nilan, California and one near the Salton Sea; worked in a grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota; and much, much more. He also adopted a new name: Alexander Supertramp.

We know all this because McCandless liked to write. He kept journals and sent postcards to the people he befriended along the way, virtually all of whom were deeply affected by their brief time with Chris — or “Alex,” as he usually identified himself. The actors who portray these characters in “Into the Wild” shine, particularly Vince Vaughan as Wayne Westerberg, the owner of a grain elevator in Carthage; Catherine Keener as Jan, a ‘rubber tramp’ (she tramps on tires, as opposed to a ‘leather tramp’ who hoofs it); and especially Hal Holbrook, as Ron Franz, an 80-year-old widower whom McCandless somehow talked into moving out of his apartment and living off the land.

Penn shoots these encounters starkly and often close up, like we’re there too, eavesdropping on a series of intimate conversations. But when McCandless is on the move — thumbing a ride out on the open road, hopping a freight train, running with wild horses, splashing around in the ocean off the Pacific Northwest, hunting small game in the Alaskan interior — the style is grand and poetic, full of epic landscapes (the film is shot on location in many of the places McCandless visited), slow-motion, and haunting folk music by Eddie Vedder. It all makes for emotional viewing. (Though there were probably a few too many shots of McCandless with his arms raised toward the sky.)

Those who admire McCandless see him as a Thoreau-quoting sage, and his travels as a brave rejection of a consumer culture he found devoid of meaning. He attempted to exist on little else but his wits and ideals, and didn’t care about wealth, status or “what the neighbors think.” To many, this makes him heroic; the virtuous rebel. To his detractors, however, he was just another deluded kid, arrogant and foolhardy enough to believe he could survive in the Alaskan bush with little more than a 10-pound bag of rice and a .22.

To Penn, he’s the former — though certainly not without issues. Penn’s McCandless may be a noble seeker of truth, and at times even Christ-like, but he’s also angry, having been deeply scarred by a gravely dysfunctional family. It turns out that during the summer before his freshman year at Emory, Chris discovered that his father had continued seeing his first wife, and even fathered an illegitimate son with her — whom he promptly disowned — all while married to Chris’s mom. For an idealist who “lived by a strong moral code” this incident seems to have put the match to an already smoldering wanderlust. And why he shunned his family for the final two years of his life.

Penn sets up this familial crisis as the crux of McCandless’s character arc. And it works. Toward the end, starving to death in the middle of nowhere and flipping through books by Tolstoy, London and Gogol, Chris is inspired to “call each thing by its right name.” When Penn’s swirling camera finally rests on a sign posted outside the abandoned bus, we see that it’s Chris’s farewell to the world, and it is signed not by Alexander Supertramp but by Christopher J. McCandless. The message, of course, is that Chris finally came to grips with his own identity — that he finally forgave, as Ron urged him to do, “because when you forgive, god shines his light on you.” It’s a satisfying ending. But you’re left wondering if Penn isn’t getting at something even deeper.

It’s hard not to view a work of art these days, especially one by Sean Penn, without taking into consideration our current social and political exigencies. McCandless’s story takes place fifteen years ago, and watching him ramble about the country unfettered — evading the river patrol as he illegally paddles down the Colorado River, charming a border agent into letting him back into the country sans identification — you ask yourself, Would that even be possible today? The film could be viewed as an elegiac for an America that may no longer exist.

But the debate over whether McCandless was a sage or a fool is beside the point. His tale grips our imagination because he was brave enough to risk his life for what he believed in — something few of us do. It’s interesting to note that his farewell missive was not an apologia for mistakes made or connections lost, but a message of gratitude: “I have had a happy life,” it said, “God bless you all.” McCandless died at 24, but it’s a good bet that if he had the chance to do it all over again, he wouldn’t change a thing. “Into the Wild” reminds us that being safe and secure — having material comfort — doesn’t mean spit without the freedom to live your dream. Even if that means living in a tent in the desert, or an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness.

–Jake Whitney

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