Into the Wild is a movie based on a book based on a true story. Sean Penn directed and wrote the screenplay for the movie, and Jon Krakauer wrote the book based on Christopher McCandless’s experiences. While the movie is well executed (I assume the book is as well), McCandless’s life choices left me feeling disturbed and disappointed, and with a lot of questions to ponder.
A Well-Made Film
- Cinematography – From the opening shots of McCandless trudging through the snowy terrain of the Alaskan wildnerness and his mother waking up from another nightmare about her missing son, it was clear that this would be a beautiful and emotional movie. The cinematography certainly highlighted the amazing wonders of the natural world, all right here in the United States of America. I was watching the blu ray version, and I enjoyed the breathtaking views of everything from snowy mountains to waving wheat fields to winding river canyons. This aspect of McCandless’s journey – the ultimate, no limits tour of America – was inspiring, but everything he sacrificed to pursue this adventure gave the story a darker tone.
- Soundtrack – The music enhances the viewer’s experience of the landscapes and McCandless’s rollercoaster of emotions. At Sean Penn’s request, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder took on the soundtrack as a solo project, and the results are fantastic. The songs have a consistently “grunge folk” sound that works very well for this particular story. I may have to add this album to my collection of movie soundtracks.
- Screenplay/Directing – Sean Penn weaves the tale of this recent college graduate by jumping around in the story, rather than going chronologically. We begin and end in Alaska, which throughout the movie is McCandless’s ultimate destination, and in between we see how his journey began, how his family dealt with his disappearance, and where he went before settling into his “magic” bus in the Alaskan wildnerness. Sean Penn is no stranger to tragic stories – two of the most difficult to watch movies I’ve ever seen were Mystic River and 21 Grams – and he brought a similar tone to this movie. Even though the mood shifts among inspiring, suspenseful, humorous, and dramatic, there is always an underlying tone of loneliness and loss. So, no, this isn’t necessarily an inspiring, feel-good movie, but it is certainly well worth watching.
- The Acting – The movie features an all-star cast, and all of them did a great job portraying their characters. Emile Hirsch played the idealistic, adventureous Chris McCandless, and he also provided narration, along with Jena Malone, who played his sister. Their parents were played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt. Harden was disturbing with her artificial cheerfulness, and Hurt was her abusive husband, who was usually quiet but had a simmering anger and bitterness just beneath the surface. McCandless meets many people on his trek across America, some quirky, some lonely, but all well-meaning. Catherine Keener is great as McCallum’s surrogate mother, Kristen Stewart (before she achieved international fame as Edward’s beloved Bella) plays a teenager who falls in love with him, Vince Vaughn is impressively understated (as opposed to his typical comedic role) as a man who hires McCandless to work on his farm, and Hal Holbrook is memorable as a reclusive old man who develops an unlikely friendship with him. These actors bring the characters to life so well that it was heartbreaking to see McCandless eventually leave all of them behind on his stubborn quest to achieve fulfillment in solitude.
So now we come to the boy himself, Christopher McCandless – or, as he liked to call himself, Alexander Supertramp. Chris wasn’t the first person to find solace in the wild. Timothy Treadwell, the ill-fated subject of the documentary Grizzly Man also comes to mind, but I am sure there are countless others. What makes McCandless’s story so memorable? For starters, it is the way he started his journey. He wasn’t just taking a summer road trip, one last hurrah before finding a job with the college degree he had just earned. Instead, he was in it for the long haul. He wanted to make a complete break from society, so he gave away his life savings ($24,000!!) to charity, cut up his credit cards and drivers license, abandoned his car, and changed his name. By doing all these things, he made himself virtually invisible. Christopher McCandless no longer existed, and so it would be impossible for his family to find him unless he wanted to be found. In my opinion, McCandless’s decision to erase his identity and go off the map was a selfish and irresponsible one. In trying to understand what he did, I’ve divided his actions into four categories below:
- Rejecting Family – Shortly after graduating from college, Chris followed through with his plans to leave life as he had known it behind. According to the movie, his main reason for doing this was that he wanted to distance himself from his parents, who had been a negative presence in his life, from their dishonesty with him, to his father’s domestic abuse, to their desire to control his future. Perhaps he wanted nothing to do with the traditional path of an upstanding American citizen, since career and marriage had brought his family so much pain.
- During the years of his unhappy home life, Chris took comfort in the words of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and London, and their portraits of nature and solitude seemed like his perfect escape from his family. Maybe he had a right to disappear and do his own thing – after all, he was over 18. But just because it was his right doesn’t mean it was the right thing to do, at least not the way he did it. Why couldn’t he pick up a phone and call his sister? Write them a letter? Send them a postcard? He left with no warning, and thus he, his sister, and his parents were never able to resolve their issues.
- I’ve heard of people disowning their families and never speaking to them again, which is really sad. But in most cases, these people have other friends who become their family. Everyone needs at least one person to share life’s ups and downs with. Chris had the chance to be “adopted” into new families several times along his journey – the hippie couple, the farmer, the old war veteran… But each time they tried to get close to him, he rejected them in the name of his quest for individual freedom. Just think how his life may have played differently if he had fostered any one of these relationships. Perhaps someone would have joined him on his Alaskan adventure, or at least checked in with him from time to time. Instead, he found himself truly alone, at the time when he most needed someone’s help.
- Rejecting Society – This is the part of Chris’s plan that I can understand the most. Sometimes it’s nice to feel invisible. He achieved that by changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, giving away all his money, and cutting up his identification. He was basically saying that he had no interest in the American dream of pursuing a successful career, making a lot of money, driving a nice car, getting married, having children, sending his children to college, etc. He had only seen the hardships that come with those choices, and so he rejected them. Even though I can understand him wanting to choose another path, his methods were still selfish. Wasn’t that his parents’ money, set aside for his education? And hadn’t they already paid his way through school? Since he bothered to graduate, he should have either tried out a job, or if nothing else given his parents an explanation for why he didn’t want to. Up until the point he became trapped in the wilderness of Alaska, his journey across America did seem exciting and fulfilling. He had no responsibility except to himself, no schedule to keep, and no limits to what he could do or see. Most people have to save up money and take time off of work to even take a small road trip, but he was able to meet new people, take on river rapids, hike mountains, swim in the ocean, etc.
- Embracing a Life of Solitude – If Chris had been content to “establish” himself as a nomad, traveling from one place to another, one adventure to another, with some of his new friends, then I would have felt like he had a good thing going on, at least for awhile. He could have traveled with Rainey and Jan, or helped an old man live the last years of his life to the fullest by taking on Ron as his travel buddy. Instead, he left them all behind to live life alone. I can understand wanting to get away from the world for awhile, but he seemed to be in it for the long haul. He spent over 100 days completely alone, with no one to talk to, no physical contact. These are things that keep us healthy and sane! I got stir crazy just watching him go through his days of solitude. I don’t believe that anyone could find true happiness or fulfillment just by experiencing nature and not being attached to society. My guess is he eventually realized that his ideal was just that, an unreachable goal.
- Experiencing Nature – I love nature. I always notice the full moon or a beautiful sunset, I’ve stood in awe beneath the huge, majestic trees of Muir Woods, and I would love to visit some of the places featured in the documentary Planet Earth. However, I don’t understand why he wanted to experience all these things alone. Chris came to this realization in the movie as he sat alone in his magic bus in Alaska. He had been marveling at the beauty of the mountains and the animals, but he didn’t have anyone to share his joy with. He wrote this simple, sad statement in his journal: “Happiness isn’t real unless it’s shared.” That statement was at odds with what he had believed throughout his journey – that relationships don’t bring satisfaction the way that true freedom does. It seems that Chris forgot to respect the darker side of nature. It’s not all big sky, clear water, and surmountable mountainsides. There’s a reason that humans have built homes, grocery stores, hospitals, and other comforts. You don’t always know what you’re going to get from nature, but you can always count on a warm place to sleep if you have a house, a hot meal to eat if you have a few dollars, and some medical attention when you need it if a doctor is in the area. In the end, Chris needed warmth, food, and medical assistance, but because he had cut himself off from society, he instead faced a grim outlook.
The saddest part of Chris’s story to me is how he was missing some vital information that may have saved him from his fate (I read about this part of his story elsewhere, since it wasn’t included in the movie). After about 90 days in the Alaskan wilderness, he prepared to return to civilization, but when he arrived at a river crossing, he discovered that the river was much wider and stronger than it had been in the spring. Rather than attempt to cross, or to walk along the bank and look for another way over, he simply returned to his bus. If he had had a decent map with him, or if he had walked 1/4 mile up the river, he would have discovered a hand-operated tram that would have easily transported him across the river.
I think that if he had really wanted to return to society and deal with some of the relationships he had formed and broken, he would have found a way across. Since he quickly gave up and turned around, I wonder if he was willing to accept the consequences of what could happen if he stayed in the wilderness alone. Maybe for him, it was all worth it, but to me, it looks like a life wasted. Christopher McCandless’s story is a grim reminder about the importance of maintaining relationships and respecting the power of nature.