Into the Wild
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau “went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived...” While the great Transcendentalist certainly lived austerely, his small cabin beside Walden Pond was not so separated from civilization that he could not pop in whenever the mood struck him. Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch, in a role that is sure to catapult his career) is cut from the same cloth as Thoreau, but his is of much sterner stuff.
We are introduced to Christopher as an above average college grad of well-to-do parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) who abandons the prospect of law school at Harvard to obey a wanderlust only he can hear or comprehend. Christopher forsakes everything and everyone, giving away all his money and worldly possessions to hitchhike, kayak, and ride freight trains across the country until he gets to his ultimate destination, Alaska. For Christopher, who renames himself “Alexander Supertramp,” it is “important to measure oneself against nature with only ones head and hands” and Alaska is the man/boy’s Holy Grail.
Along the way Christopher meets the salt of the earth: middle-aged, kindhearted nomadic hippies (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener), a genial South Dakota farmer (Vince Vaughn), a teenage gypsy (Kristen Stewart), and a lonely widower (Hal Halbrook). All, in one way or another, serve as parental figures, lavishing on him the attention and love his thirsty spirit so desperately requires.
For as much as Christopher is running toward himself, he is also running away from himself. We can hardly blame him. He is deeply apprehensive of becoming like his parents, materialistic workaholics whose violent marriage has been in tatters since he was born. With what his sister (Jena Malone, who narrates) calls his “characteristic immoderation,” he cuts his ties with them completely. Whatever their faults, their agony over the deliberate disappearance of their son crushes their spirits and, in a peculiar way, restores their humanity.
Director Sean Penn never judges his protagonist, nor does he try to hide his faults. Christopher is not an easy man to like. Admire, yes—even if we think his unorthodox methods border on madness—but fondness is not automatic. He is sanctimonious and arrogant. An inevitable symptom of his brief 22 years of life, Christopher thinks the wisdom he has absorbed from Tolstoy, London and Thoreau has taught him everything he needs to know about life. Moreover, he uses these penetrating insights to judge others. This self-righteousness will be tempered by his travels and by the connections he makes along the way. He will come out the other side no less passionate in his beliefs, but softer, purer, and with a great deal more understanding. It is not important that we like Chris—it is only important that we understand him. Though we may, to varying degrees, disagree with him, we never cease caring about him.
Combing the road trip movie with the man vs. nature genre, Into the Wild is both highly ambitious and occasionally unfocused. If the film rambles a bit, it seems only appropriate given its subject nature. For a meditative and contemplative film, Penn makes some odd and out-of-character directing choices, folding over-stylized camerawork into a less-is-more scenario if ever there was one. It speaks to Into the Wild's spellbinding nature that these moments, bothersome as they may be, never derail the film.
Into the Wild is based on Jon Krakauer's book, which reconstructs Christopher’s story from his journal entries. Told with sweep, fervor and vitality, the film is almost guaranteed to satisfy most admirers of the book.
There’s no denying that there is a certain seduction with the idea of turning one’s back on civilization and testing our wits and stamina against nature. It is a fantasy to which we all turn from time to time, especially as our modern world is subsumed by mechanization and drifts further and further away from a connection to natural world. What stops us from taking that step? Do we deem it impractical? Irresponsible? Or are we too pampered and set in our ways? So it is that when someone does make that brave and illogical leap, we look upon their venture with envy, even if their journey ends, as so many of them do, in tragedy. The journey, and not the destination is the point, right?
Christopher’s story is both heroic and cautionary. For as brave as Christopher is, he is also equally foolish. We cannot help but be reminded of Timothy Treadwell, whose video diary of life among the Alaskan grizzlies was chronicled in Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. Treadwell, deemed by some to be brilliant and others, insane, perished in the wilderness he loved. And while Christopher is a figure Penn wants us to admire—those who pursue their dreams with unflinching resolve are easy to admire—he, like Treadwell, learns too late that one must love and fear nature in equal measure and that happiness is meaningless without someone with whom to share it.