Into the Wild: Stranded on Bus 142

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Into the Wild accents a tension between the value of relationships and freedom. There is little doubt on which side the main character in this movie comes down. Chris McCandless’s apparent creed is that freedom is most supremely manifest in nature. It’s not that he is necessarily opposed to relationships. In fact, he is a social young man with plenty of personal mangnetism. People are drawn to him like bees to honey and he seems to like them. Still, McCandless–played with skillful realism by Emile Hirsch–eagerly seeks fulfillment and joy in the great outdoors, even if it means divorcing himself from meaningful relationships.

With focused intensity, McCandless pursues new experiences. He is intrigued by people–as long as they don’t become too familiar and as long as they don’t tie him down.

McCandless has seen all he wants to see of the upper middle class lifestyle in which he was raised. He donates his law school nest egg to charity and leaves the values of his family behind, literally. Through the course of this movie, I wondered if he was motivated more by that which he left behind or that which he was seeking. In other words, was he running “from” or running “to”? It’s a difficult question, though he was no doubt a wise and thoughtful young man. On the other hand, how much wisdom should we expect to find in a twenty year-old brain? One of the first pillars of wisdom has something to do with humility; the more one knows, the more he realizes he doesn’t know. Something akin to that line of thinking would have led to different outcomes than that which McCandless ultimately found.

After obtaining his undergraduate degree from Emory University, McCandless–who takes on the assumed name of Alexander Supertramp–heads west. Along the way, he encounters an interesting, eclectic range of characters including a grain dealer in South Dakota, (Vince Vaughn with his usual quirky character spin), a hippie couple in Arizona, and a wise old retired military man in California. He engages in these relationships just long enough to see the dawn of meaning and fulfillment. But as soon as something like love rears its head–with cool, dispassionate fury–Chris exits stage left.

This movie is produced (in part), written, and superbly directed by Sean Penn. I can and do ignore movies by other Hollywood types who wear their political heart on their sleeve: Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo, Alec Baldwin, and Susan Sarandon come immediately to mind. But Sean Penn’s skills as an actor and director are too significant to ignore. While I largely disagree with Penn’s political platform, his latter-day work seems driven by truth and humanity more than an aggressive political agenda. In this film, I felt as if the story was being shared as it really happened, not as if it was being framed to promote some progressive political theme.

Into the Wild is based upon a true story which has been adapted for the big screen. Jon Krakauer wrote this best seller which chronicles the young adulthood adventures of the late Christopher Johnson McCandless, who leaves life as he knows it to seek unlimited elbowroom in the wild wilderness of Alaska. And yes, I let a spoiler slip without warning.

The thing is, that McCandless dies is a foregone conclusion for anyone that is even half-way engaged in domestic pop culture. And more to the point, the drama in this movie comes not from this young man’s death, but from the way in which he lived his life. Penn uses the editing style in which the near-ending is the first thing we see. Scenes are shuffled like a deck of cards which then circle back around to the beginning. But rather than confusion, this approach brings clarity. The mystery and suspense come not from the stark destination, but in the discovery and magic of the journey.

Watching the film, I pondered the question, “Is this twenty year-old man a visionary, an idealistic poet with insight, courage, and intelligence, or a reckless vagabond, foolishly self-indulging his life away?” By the end of the movie, I realized that in my attempt to lasso tidy understanding from my theater seat, I was engaging in the very technique I shun in blockbuster filmmakers. Yes, the film characterizes McCandless as a bit arrogant and–at times–more than a little reckless. Still, it’s hard and maybe unfair to arbitrarily pigeonhole the man. He was a complex person. I appreciated the way in which Mr. Penn refrained from leading me around by a chain, jerking me here and there to force feed some overly simplistic thesis. It’s rare to discover a mainstream release that allows ambiguity and complexity to be what they are. Mr. Penn allowed the story to tell itself with little hint of directorial interference.

Rabbit Room readers will appreciate the literate, poetic nature of this effort. The movie brims with quotes from the likes of Henry David Thoreau (“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth”), Leo Tolstoy, and Jack London. My mind wandered a few times as I pondered the aphorisms from McCandless’s journal or dialogue. Passages of McCandless’s personal journal and clips of letters he sent to friends intermittently scroll across the screen.

Beauty will also be found in the gorgeous cinematography which captured some of the most beautiful locations in the U.S., Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California, Denali National Park in Alaska, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and many more.

McCandless and retired military man Ron Franz, played perceptively by Hal Holbrook, share a most compelling and moving relationship. Holbrook’s character wisely indulges Chris McCandless, intuitively realizing that McCandless has built sturdy walls of philosophy what are not likely to be scaled by just anybody. In fact, it’s McCandless that dispenses most of the advice in their dialogue. Like most wise men, Franz mostly listens. Nevertheless, the grizzled old man casually releases what turns out to be one of the most memorable lines in the movie:

“When you forgive, you love … and when you love, God’s light shines on you.”

Setting aside any dispute as to the explicit theological truth contained in these words, please remember them as you view the final scene of the movie. Like me, odds are that you will find it profoundly moving when you link the final scene to the casually delivered, but penetrating words of the old man.

As an aside, the departure scene between Ron Franz and McCandless is one of the best of the entire movie.

Failed relationships leave gaping wounds, some more, some less. Its more obvious victims bleed incessantly, are asleep in the back alley, waiting for delivery at the crack house, lounging at the open door mission, or staring blankly at the big screen down at O’Malley’s. Perhaps unintentionally, McCandless offers the closest thing to explaining his unique path when he says, “Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.”

Sometimes, the walking wounded bleed in public. For others, it’s a lonely and private experience.

When I first learned of Jon Krakauer’s book and the basic story of Christopher McCandless, I thought he must be an idiot. And on some level, maybe he was. Despite his cock-sure, single-minded assurance, McCandless was ill-equipped to survive in the Alaskan wilderness. Simply put, he was unprepared. Many Alaskans familiar with his story have been even more critical. But similar to real life, labels and rash conclusions rarely provide real understanding. I haven’t read the entire book, but the movie does seem to be fair-minded, offering insight without explicit judgment; questions without concrete answers. That this excellent movie evokes a passionately divided response isn’t really surprising; that the passionate response comes from the same viewer is not only surprising, but it is also an indication that it is a serious, nuanced movie that is beholden to nothing but the cause of telling a good story.

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Please note that our own Eric Peters wrote and recorded an impressive song about this event. It’s called “Bus 152” (not 142, like in the movie) and it’s one of the awesome tracks on Land of the Living. Miracle of Forgetting and Scarce, other Eric Peters projects, can be purchased in The Rabbit Room. Eric’s song was a natural fit for the soundtrack and may have been in the running, but despite a public relations push, was somehow not chosen.


9 Comments

  1. ben Regenold

    The book “Into the Wild” is my alltime favorite. I am certainly not the reader that I would like to be, but I have read this book 3 times. I was not happy to hear that Mr. Penn was involved in this movie, but I know I will probably see it anyways.

  2. Matt Conner

    I absolutely agree that this movie was beautiful. It’s a two-plus hour poem to any viewer that wishes to read it – tender, poignant, stunning and inspiring. I can’t recommend it enough.

  3. Keith Krepcho

    I watched this movie the other week with my wife. I found myself respecting Chris McCandless’ ideals and journey, but mourning his inability to respect the human relationships in his life. I saw a parallel in the current Christian culture, where you have a group of people who are frustrated with the seeming hypocrasy of their parents or what they might look at as “their parent’s religion”, and stressing the journey of the Christian life or experience. They seek to find truth in the journey and through experience but without anything informing their journey. To me they seem as unprepared as Chris McCandless was. We need proper understanding to ground our experiences or we to can be trapped by our experiences with no established authority there to bring any insight to them. Anyway, I thought this movie was fantastic. Thanks for writing an article about it.

  4. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Ben: My process is opposite of yours. Having seen the movie, I now look forward to reading the book. Let us know what you think after you see the movie!

    Matt: Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed the movie and appreciate your perspective.

    Keith: Nice insight, Keith. On both counts, it’s an issue of maturity, isn’t it? Those that are self-reliant and have a lot of confidence, like McCandless, are particularly susceptible to that fatal flaw. Arrogance isn’t always ugly; sometimes it can seem admirable and even romantic. But in the end, it will bring us down.

    As one who struggles with the issue of arrogance/pride, I’m trying to remember that it’s less painful to admit I have much to learn–even in these middle aged years–and take the low road of humility, than it is to indulge my pride with its inevitable fall.

    Stephen Covey makes the point that interdependency is a higher calling than independence. For guys like me, that’s a tough pill to swallow, but just what the Dr. ordered.

    Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. — Philippians 2:3-8

  5. Keith Krepcho

    Thanks for commenting so well to a post that didn’t derserve such a thoughtful response (is being self depricating the same as humility?). I agree with you %100. I also struggle in the area of pride although oddly enough not so much in the area of arrogance. Alongside what you were saying I feel that it is also an issue of your motivations. I am in seminary right now and find myself thinking, increasingly, about preaching and my motivations. The idea that people would come from even a block away to listen to me speak is an assault on both my arrogance (in thinking that it has anything to do with me) and secondly my motivations, (why am i seeking this degree and why do I one day want to preach in a church?)…Lord willing.

    In this way Chris McCandless strikes me as odd again. His motivations seemed alternately right and wrong. The way he went about his journey seems right. I know if the goal of my trip was to go to a specific place like Alaska I wouldn’t begin it by donating my money to charity and burning the rest of it and I KNOW that I wouldn’t end up going to Mexico, which is in the opposite direction of where I wanted to end up. It seemed like to Chris (author’s note: when writing this I accidentally wrote “Christ” instead of “Chris” I bet Sean Penn would have loved that) McCandless Alaska was the reward after his journey. After he had peeled away the layers that he felt needed to go, then and only then would he reward himself with Alaska. All that seems like it came from someone who had their priorities in the right place and whose motivations were nothing if not admirable. Yet, those motivations come into question when you think about his childhood and parents.

    I guess the only thing I’m getting at is i see this alot in my life. I may be doing things that seem honorable or difficult, but if my motivation is anything but Christ and his calling on my life then my journey is worthless and I become guilty of pride and arrogance, because i was seeking something other than Christ. Anyone can speak, and when I turn on some religious channels I am convinced of that, but not everyone can speak with the proper motivations informing their speech or sermon. Anyone can point out a person or institutions faults, few can do so with proper motivations. And it seems like where proper motives are lacking pride is abounding.

    In order to summarize I want to list the basic questions I am asking:
    -Can I admire Chris for the way he journeyed if I do not agree with his motivations for going on the journey? (Can a Christian go to seminary, pastor a church, go about a whole journey and have faulty motivations? How do we check our motives?)
    -How do we counter the voice that accuses us of being prideful and arrogant when we are doing things the Bible commands us to do?
    -Is doing something (i.e. devotions, prayer) out of routine or forced will acceptable? or is that a false motivation?

    anyway, I guess your post got me thinking about motivations. Thanks for making me think…sorry this is long and may not be as coherent as I would like it to be.

  6. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Keith, you have thown out some great questions. As more people see the movie and read the book, I hope the discussion will continue. Now I’m reading the book. I look forward to seeing how, if at all, the book changes my views. When I finish the book, I’ll respond further to your post. Stay tuned. 🙂

  7. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Keith:

    Since writing my review of the movie, I’ve read the book and seen the movie again. I might see one in twenty movies a second time, but especially after reading the book, and having the sense that my understanding of Chris was more nuanced, I just had to see the movie again.

    I’ve come to realize that–right or wrong–I identify closely with Chris. I tend to be more radical and passionate about things than might be considered normal. Chris trumps my intensity (and nearly everyone elses, for that matter), but I get it. Every deeply held belief may not be worth dying for, but if a belief is real and important, it’s real and important enough to act on. At least that’s kind of how my thought process goes. The fact that I’ve seen the movie twice, read the book, written a review, and now continue to post in this thread somewhat confirms–albeit in a small way–how my passion can run amuck sometimes.

    It seems that there is a part of Chris that is incredibly selfish, and sadly enough, I identified with that characteristic too.

    Finally, Chris was a walking paradox and this too resonated deeply with me. He loved solitude and felt comfortable being alone. On the other hand, on his own terms, he loved the company of people, was fascinated by their stories, and seemed to have caring and concern that burrowed deeply into his heart. If you see the movie again, notice the way in which Chris listens to Catherine Keener’s character, before dinner. It’s one of my favorite scenes. I loved the way Emile Hirsch played it, without saying a word until the very end of the scene, just listening to her spill her guts with rapt attention and deep empathy. Then he says something like this: “Are you ready for dinner, because I’ll listen to you talk all night long.” And that comment had nothing to do with sex; it was just an indication that this young man had uncommon caring and empathy for his friend.

    Your questions:

    -Can I admire Chris for the way he journeyed if I do not agree with his motivations for going on the journey? (Can a Christian go to seminary, pastor a church, go about a whole journey and have faulty motivations? How do we check our motives?)

    I think one can do anything with the wrong motivation. And while I do think it’s useful to regularly check the integrity of our respective motivations, I do think one can go nutty with introspection if one allows himself. I think an active prayer life and checking ourselves with the Word is pretty close to the right answer. Some would call that a trite answer, but I think it’s a true answer.

    -How do we counter the voice that accuses us of being prideful and arrogant when we are doing things the Bible commands us to do?

    I wish I had a better answer to this, because I struggle with it. I think part of the answer is a recognition of who we are in Christ. Ron Block has some great posts about this topic. I think pride must be the most ubiquitous sin. Understanding that its snare has touched us is a major first step. This pride thing camouflages itself so well, is so indidious, that some of us never realize it has made a home in our hearts. So I think recognizing its truth is a critical first step. On the other hand, we are new creatures in Christ, who died for all sin, including pride. We can and should rest in the knowledge of that finished work. I know that’s easier said than done.

    -Is doing something (i.e. devotions, prayer) out of routine or forced will acceptable? or is that a false motivation?

    Like the movie, this question is not given to easy answers. If you continue asking these kinds of questions, I think you will make a great pastor. As Eric Peters writes, “If the answers are easy then the questions must be wrong,” so it’s difficult to attempt an answer such a thoughtful question, but I think the answer has something to do with obedience. I think it’s far more important to ask great questions that to yield to simplistic, pat answers. Too, in seeking answers, struggle is okay. Further, struggle is important and necessary, I think.

    Thanks for the dialogue, Keith. It’s made me think, which is part of what The Rabbit Room is all about.

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