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I will assume for the purpose of these notes that any reader knows how Christopher McCandless’ story ends. If not, maybe better watch the film or read at least the article or book first on which it is based.

I suppose I would not have liked McCandless, aka Alexander Supertramp, too much in real life. His anti-materialistic philosophy is to be appreciated, and his reaction to growing up in a family that represents much of what can be detested about modern Western lifestyle is understandable. Still, that philosophy and its application to his life is of the simplistic kind that is not uncommon among angry teenagers. He does not have a solution to the world’s trouble but to run away from it, to escape all the cages and boundaries by putting as much distance as possible between himself and all that he hates (maybe most prominently his parents). Fair enough, but maybe not of the intellectual vigour and quality those showed who provided him with the inspiration for it: all the philosophers, poets and novelists whose work he breathes, from Tolstoy through Jack London to Thoreau. Their work survived to inspire him because they decided (intentionally or not) to struggle with their world and those who inhabit it, and to see where an intellectual and practical compromise can be found. McCandless is more simple, he believes that leaving behind civilization’s oppression will provide him with some form of answer. He still relies occasionally on the materialistic system by  taking on farm work when he realises the stash of money he burned could have been used to buy the equipment necessary to get him up North, but he reaches his aim, the wilderness of Alaska and the almost unprotected exposure to the mechanisms of nature unadulterated by human presence (minus the gun and the matches and the bus that provides him shelter in the end, that is).

Emile Hirsch plays this full on, he gives it all his boy charm of adorable college graduate, and he manages to enchant people along the way into missing him when he leaves again after a short meeting of soul mates. The idealised concept of his liberty leaves people behind with a tinge of jealousy and admiration, be it the farm workers or the hippies or the former soldier who could imagine having a grandson like him. The ecstasy of taking in the beauty of the country, from Mexico to Alaska, peaks, valleys and rivers alike, Hirsch conveys with boyish enthusiasm.

The film shows Sean Penn’s admiration for this kind of life concept, something I am sure he would subscribe to as worth pursuing, but I guess he would also add that by leaving the world behind, you will find it hard to change it for the better. Alexander Supertramp did leave it behind, whether he changed it I don’t know. But I have a suspicion: the final sequence of his life plays out in one single location for a long time, trapped by nature, but also by himself. Did he get tired of his way North? Was it an intentional decision to end his voyage there, or did he succumb to the forces of nature and his limited abilities to cope with them? Or did he just not know what to do next, after having reached the end of civilisation, crossed it and bathed in the absence of humans? His notes show that he may have come to some fundamental insights there, that he realised how high a price he paid for learning about the human nature. I think “True joy exists only when shared” is at the heart of it – it took him a while to correct himself on his earlier assertion that human relations are not the most important thing in life. It would have been very interesting to read the book he planned to write had he returned from his adventure. As it turned out, we will never know what his final assessment was.

Background on the Jon Krakauer book on which the film is based:

Interestingly enough, I took until 2013 to actually verify the details of the end of McCandless’ story:

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