Illustration, in a sketchy hand, of the Jon Krakauer nonfiction book on Christopher McCandless, a 1990 college graduate, on the doorstep of Harvard Law School, who gave away his tuition fund to Oxfam, obliterated his identity, renamed himself Alexander Supertramp, and swapped the evils of society for the purity of the northern wilderness ("No longer to be poisoned by civilization," he carved into a wooden shingle at his encampment), where ultimately he starved to death in 1992. It may not sound like much of an idea for a film. It isn't. A Seventies-style road movie, redolent of Seventies-style disaffection, it has a strong element of travelogue, as our happy-go-lucky hobo rides his aging Datsun westward to South Dakota, abandons it at Lake Mead, kayaks down the Colorado River, drifts into Mexico, train-hops up to L.A., thumbs his way to the Salton Sea, Anza Borrego, and Alaska. In that final destination, the travelogue veers toward nature documentary. At nearly two and a half hours, the film feels very, very long, albeit short on relatable incident: the protagonist goes places, he meets people, and then he goes to a place where he won't meet people, where he will meet only his end, a martyr to something or other. Director Sean Penn unmistakably takes himself very seriously, and takes his protagonist almost reverently, painting him as something of a holy fool (a reader of Tolstoi, even though an eater of meat when he can get it), and offering up this speculative re-enactment as nothing less than an endorsement. At the top, he sets the tone with a high-flown epigraph from Lord Byron: "I love not man the less, but Nature more" — that one. The kid sister periodically supplies some explanatory narration ("I understand what he was doing"), and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder chimes in with a half-dozen or so acoustic songs in sympathy and support. Of the real protagonist's earnestness and conviction, the film can tell us next to nothing. Of the filmmaker's, it can tell us much. And then it can tell us again. And again. With Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Vince Vaughn, and Hal Holbrook. (2007) — Duncan Shepherd
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