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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.
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.