Cast: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Brian Dierker, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Oscar Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Hal Holbrook), Best Film Editing (Jay Cassidy)
SUMMARY: In 1992, recent college graduate Christopher “Chris” McCandless (Emile Hirsch) hitches a ride to an area near Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He then hikes into the wilderness and begins to live on his own, completely without modern conveniences or contact with the outside world. He soon finds an abandoned bus that has been outfitted as a small camper, and takes up residence in it. The film then flashes back to two years earlier, when Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta. Chris has become disillusioned with the materialistic world he lives in, and with his own parents; when his parents offer to buy him a new car as a graduation present, he angrily turns them down, saying that his own car works fine. He talks about going to Harvard Law School, but when his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and sister Carine (Jena Malone) leave, he withdraws his entire life savings from the bank ($24,000) and donates it to charity. He also destroys all of his identifying papers, including his Social Security card, driver’s license and all credit cards. He then begins a wandering, aimless journey in his car. He does not tell his parents or sister what he is doing, and does not communicate with them. Eventually, his parents get worried by the lack of communication from him, and go to Atlanta to visit; they learn that Chris moved out a month ago, and has not been heard from since. Chris winds up in Arizona, where his car is damaged in a flash flood. He packs up his gear and begins walking and hitchhiking, after burning his remaining cash. He also decides that this new beginning requires a new name, so he begins calling himself “Alexander Supertramp”, or Alex. He is eventually picked up by a couple named Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker), who are basically hippies living in a camper. He stays with them for a while, but abruptly leaves one morning. He continues to travel around, but stops in South Dakota to make some money. He gets a job working for a contract harvesting company, and does quite well, but leaves after the owner is arrested (for stealing a cable TV signal).
By this time, Chris has been talking about going to Alaska to live in the wild, but he now decides to kayak down the Colorado River. Unfortunately he learns that a permit is required to do this, and that he will not be able to make his trip for another 12 years. He ignores the laws, buys a kayak, and sets off down the river on his own. He encounters a couple on his way, who tell him that the river will take him all the way to Mexico. Chris does go into Mexico, but soon comes back into the U.S. He starts hitchhiking again, hopping freight trains when he can’t find a ride. He goes to Los Angeles, but begins to feel stifled by the materialism and society again, and leaves. He heads to an area of California known as Slab City, where he knows Jan and Rainey will be living. He reunites with the couple and stays with them for quite a while, enjoying their simple existence. During this time he meets Tracy (Kristen Stewart), a teenager living with her parents in Slab City. The two quickly develop a friendship, but Chris refuses to get further involved because Tracy is only 16. Chris has decided to really go to Alaska, and begins prepping his body for survival in the wild. Despite the wishes of Rainey and Jan (and Tracy), he eventually leaves Slab City and heads north. A month later, he is still in California when he is picked up by Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). Ron is an Army veteran who lost his wife and son in a car accident, and then became an alcoholic. Ron eventually found his faith and stopped drinking, and now lives by himself, making money by creating hand-tooled leather products. Ron is initially confused (and slightly irritated) by Chris’ lack of ambition and regard for his family, but the two soon develop a deep friendship. Chris stays with Ron for two months, but ultimately does leave for Alaska, with gear given to him by Ron. In the present day, in Alaska, Chris has been living in the bus for four months. His supplies are getting low and he is not having much luck finding game; he has also come to the realization that happiness is only real when it is shared with others. With this revelation, he decides to leave Alaska and reunite with his family. Unfortunately, the river he has to cross to get back has become wild and violent, due to the spring thaw. He is not able to cross, and has to return to the bus, where he essentially becomes a prisoner. Still unable to find game, he resorts to eating plants and berries, and becomes thinner and thinner. One day, he mistakes a poisonous plant for an edible one, and eats quite a bit of it. He soon realizes his mistake, and reads in his guidebook that the plant will prevent digestion, meaning that he will slowly starve to death. He continues to make journal entries as his body withers away, and writes a goodbye note before dying in the bus. Two weeks later a group of hunters find his body and notify his family (who never heard from him after he left). Carine goes to Alaska to retrieve Chris’s ashes, and brings them back home.
MY TAKE: This movie is based on the true story of Chris McCandless, and it sticks pretty accurately to the facts (it was adapted from a biography). Since Chris kept a journal, most of his travels could be tracked, though I’m sure some artistic license has been taken. The only real difference is that the film shows a concrete cause of death: Chris ate poison berries which caused him to starve to death. In reality, the cause of death is attributed to starvation, but the reasons are a little murky. There are several theories, but in any case, his body only weighed like 66 pounds when it was found. Emile Hirsch got down to about 115 for these scenes, and he looks like a concentration camp survivor. Maybe death caused his body to drop some weight, but any way you look at it 66 pounds is crazy thin. It’s an inspiring story but also a sad one, because Chris finds and then leaves so many friends along the way. It’s hinted that he’s become disillusioned with his life because of his parents and their relationship (also unconfirmed, though suspected as true), so I can see wanting to get away from them. However, when he meets people like Rainey and Jan, and later Ron, I don’t know how he could walk away from them and be so insistent to be on his own. Of course, he eventually figures this out, but it’s then too late. Personally, I was hoping that he would either wait by the river until it became more manageable, look for a better crossing point or build a raft, but none of these things happened. Chris slowly starves to death in the bus, which has got to be a terrible way to go; the fact that he knew how he would die (having read it in the guidebook) makes it even sadder.
RATING: Bittersweet but very compelling.