With tremendous skill and imagination, Penn unspools a great American tragedy, the true story of 22-year-old establishment dropout Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch).
McCandless was freshly graduated from Emory University with a promising future at Harvard Law when he ditched his privileged lifestyle in favor of an unforeseen odyssey into the wild.
His goal was complete emancipation from a false sense of security, from the very essence of things that cut him off from a true - and ostensibly meaningful - existence.
McCandless cashed in his college fund and abruptly donated all $24,000 to Oxfam. Thus the ties were cut, from his judgmental parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and his sister/partner-in-crime, Carine (Jena Malone). McCandless hit the road with a vengeance; his car was found abandoned in the Arizona desert and his parents notified law enforcement, to no avail.
The simple beauties of the country were too good to pass up, but there was inner splendor to discover as well. McCandless' coiled disillusionment was a weighty travel companion, its layers shed along with his worldly possessions. The printed stylings of Tolstoy, London and Thoreau fed the mind while a bevy of bohemian travelers (Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn and Hal Holbrook in fine performances) served as a social life.
From the mean streets of Los Angeles and the Southwestern deserts to the wheat fields of South Dakota and beyond, McCandless ultimately found himself exactly where he wanted to be: completely off the grid in the isolated wilderness of Alaska.
Penn's touch is aggressive and self-assured, crafted with a clever intelligence. His screenplay, based on Jon Krakauer's evocative novel, makes a subtle but sound case for McCandless' desperate desire to reach the core of his being through new and fresh experiences.
Carine's voice-over signals a pregnant family sadness in direct contrast to McCandless' burgeoning liberation. Eddie Vedder's moody melodies reflect internal struggle and spiritual awakening.
Hirsch is nothing short of a revelation, his fervent commitment to the project both painful and profound. The might of the film's emotions is breathlessly hypnotic; I was fixed to my seat long after the lights came up.