Into the Wild
out of ****
“There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.”
It is appropriate that Sean Penn’s extraordinary Into the Wild begins with a few lines from Lord Byron’s great poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The Romantic minstrel spent his short life cursed with wanderlust and driven by the idealism that mankind needed to connect totally with the natural world in order to fully experience life; he died a patriot in Greece’s revolutionary war against the Turks at the age of 36. No doubt he cheerfully greeted Christopher MacCandless on the stairway to heaven and congratulated him on a job well done.
Into the Wild is based on the bestselling book of the same name by investigative reporter Jon Krakauer, which detailed the last two years of MacCandless’ (played in the film by Emile Hirsch) life. As you probably know, he was a college graduate who gave away his life savings, severed all contact with his family, changed his name, and hit the road for a cross-country adventure in which he encountered various people of such colorful variety that some make Jack Nicholson’s character in Easy Rider seem relatively tame by comparison. McCandless, traveling under the name Alexander Supertramp, experienced adventures that ranged from thrilling (rafting down to Mexico), ponderous (working at a farm and later for Burger King) and introspective (spending time in a hippy commune). MacCandless, as both the book and the film’s ads tell you, ended his adventure in the wildernesses of Alaska where he lasted an entire season living in an abandoned bus, fighting and surviving dangerously low temperatures and starvation. A frequent miscalculation finally killed him: He mistook deadly roots for edible ones, and they ate him from the inside out. His frozen, poisoned body was eventually found by hunters. He was in easy hiking distance from civilization.
As most of my faithful readers probably know, I am an Alaskan, and everyone I know in this state, all of my neighbors and local friends, have read Into the Wild. Remember the scene in The Simpsons Movie when Homer crosses into Alaska and the border patrol officer hands him $1000 in cash? In reality, they hand you a copy of Krakauer’s book. So let me make absolutely clear that it is impossible to be an Alaskan and not have an opinion about McCandless. Like Timothy Treadwell (of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man), he epitomizes the sort of reckless thrill-seeking that automatically polarizes citizens of the Last Frontier, because we either A) sympathize with and to some degree applaud his adventurous spirit, which is why we’re here, or B) we see him as an outsider who represents the worst kind of misunderstanding toward Alaska’s rugged wilderness. All of us agree, however, that this land is not to be trifled with. Like all things beautiful, it requires immense responsibility, and McCandless did not fulfill the requirements of that dichotomy. For him, Alaska was merely something far away—a final voyage to an exotic place. His connection with the land was merely a romantic one, when it should have been romantic and pragmatic. Without that careful balance, wilderness life is a game of Russian roulette, and McCandless simply kept pulling the trigger until he found the wrong chamber.
Alright—I’ve stated my peace, so let’s move on. What I appreciate the most about Sean Penn’s film is the same thing that I admired about the book: Instead of tackling the wilderness debate, we are instead provided with a fascinating document of McCandless’s life that speculates why he made the choice to lose himself in his mystical journey in the first place. I suppose that all of us at one time or another have itchy feet, which often come during that time in our late teens/early twenties when we honestly think that we’re going to live forever and believe that society is a materialistic handicap from which we must escape. This mentality, naïve as it is exhilarating, can take us on road trips and assorted wacky experiences (ask me sometime about the six winter days that I spent underneath the New York subways with a dozen homeless people; I was 19 and stupid as hell, but I wouldn’t take it back for anything); the difference perhaps is that McCandless never had the opportunity to outgrow this stage—to transform them into lessons learned and then move on. But then, some never do and would rather turn this phase into an ongoing, endless saga—which is how Penn primarily interprets McCandless’ actions.
Of course, with this approach come a few caveats. I suppose that it’s impossible to know if McCandless would ever grow out of this juncture, given that his life was snuffed out in the midst of it. He certainly went far beyond where even the most adventurous of us dare to venture, but the question continues to linger: Had he not died so young and so tragically, would he have ever been ranked among the likes of Thoreau, Jack London, or any of the other great adventurers that he admired so much and to whom he is now compared? Or would he just be… an unknown guy with an astonishing personal experience who is now pushing pencils for some law firm?
Penn doesn’t pretend to have the answer to this question, and would rather consider McCandless’ saga as one of a jubilant young man whose end was untimely but perhaps satisfying in that he died doing what he loved. McCandless’ own contagious elation for living life to its fullest is placed at the center of the narrative: The film documents some of the most memorable encounters from the book with the engaging pace of a travelogue, and sometimes we feel like we’re watching a private video diary—particularly when McCandless breaks the fourth wall and reacts directly into the camera. Scenes of his various travels are chaptered and sectioned off, with his sister (Jena Malone) providing narrative to fill in the gaps that McCandless’ own diary entries (which we also hear) leave to speculation. We begin at the end, during McCandless’ “great Alaskan adventure,” and move with ease back-and-forth between these events and the travels that preceded it. Sometimes Penn shifts from various stages of the story with such ferocity that the scenes in Alaska seem to be happening at the same time as his trek across the lower 48. The effect provides moving intimacy and continuity throughout the film—for as much as this could have been a series of vignettes, Penn’s rhythmic crosscutting consistently uses the Alaskan scenes as the glue that holds the various pieces together.
Emile Hirsch’s astonishing performance as McCandless allows us to believe that such a free-spirit could have existed without being merely a caricature. McCandless is frequently compared to Timothy Treadwell, the aforementioned activist who spent thirteen summers on Kodiak Island living with bears, only to be tragically eaten by an unfamiliar grizzly. To watch Herzog’s documentary is to see that Treadwell was often a suicidal parody of himself, and his journey therefore plays out like an intentional acceleration to an inevitable fate. Hirsch considers McCandless more as a thoughtful young man who took himself very seriously and died as a result of a desperate, ill-conceived mistake. In the meantime, not one self-destructive bone dwelled in his body, and every moment for him—even when things go terribly wrong—is an opportunity to breathe in the wonders of life. It is a performance which draws instant comparisons to Christian Bale’s work in Herzog’s Rescue Dawn (also released in 2007), which similarly chronicles a man who grows progressively sicker and thinner but whose spirit will not be crushed. Both performances should be popping about again around Oscar time, if Academy members have any common sense about them.
Hirsch’s performance is so vibrant and alive that it is easy to believe that McCandless was simply a young dreamer with a romantic pull toward nature. This film doesn’t romanticize, though it’s easy to think that it does so when it places its protagonist in the center of characters who stand in awe of his anti-materialistic, “shame on society” speeches. Yes, McCandless is an idealist who counts Walden, The Call of the Wild, and Tolstoy among his few belongings, and he manages lines like, “I burned all my money because I don’t need it where I’m going,” with utter seriousness. Walking out of the film, I engaged in a rather lengthy discussion with a disgusted audience member who felt that McCandless’ superiority complex as someone who felt he had all the answers—including a willingness to undermine those who hadn’t “seen the light”—was cast in far too favorable of a light. And if we only followed McCandless’ point of view throughout, I think this would be a perfectly acceptable reservation.
But I disagree with this viewer’s reading (sorry Dave), because Penn ultimately probes deeper: He provides glimpses into McCandless’ troubled family life, including his emotionally abusive parents (played with menacing coldness by William Hurt and Marica Gay Harden) whose often undermining tones and frowns cut more than their physical abuse. This abuse, of course, is clearly a factor in his disenchantment with society (when he lists the vices of American culture, the first problem he cites is “parents”); the use of his sister as an additional narrator is also a masterstroke, because it allows ruminations on motives that are ultimately lost in time and non-existent (or lost) journal entries. At one point, she wonders if he has fled his old life partially to teach his parents a harsh lesson, and that’s as good a theory as any—a few scenes feature McCandless in isolation, passionately acting out angry conversations he had with his father. Penn thus makes clear that McCandless wanted a different identity that had absolutely nothing to do with his family, and his obsession with abandoning them—particularly his sister, who he cared about— always lingers over the proceedings with disturbing resonance. At one point an old-timer sizes the young man up and states bluntly, “What are you running from?”, and it’s notably a question that McCandless never answers. Is he partially ashamed of the truth?
For that matter, not all of his fellow travelers are impressed with his quest; for everyone who encourages him, we find plenty who are worried for him and question his nonchalant freewheeling: In the first scene, an Alaskan trucker (Jim Gallien, playing himself as the man who dropped the real Chris off in the wilderness) hands him a pair of goulashes and carefully forms his words: “If you survive the winter, give me a call. My phone number is in the boots.” Before this, but later in the film, a farmer (Vince Vaughn) is supportive but cautions McCandless to wait until the spring to enter the Alaskan wilderness, and a hippy with maternal instincts (Catherine Keener) constantly counsels him to get in contact with his folks. That he doesn’t heed her advice is telling, especially in the moments that Penn confirms that they are worried sick and that McCandless probably knows it. Thus, the young adventurer’s motivations were partially fueled by a self-centeredness that might have ultimately helped perpetuate his death, and Penn is not shy in suggesting that his boyish charms and wide-eyed outlook were part of a mask he fashioned to hide a very troubled psyche.
This psyche is explored and speculated upon in a series of interactions that alone are provocative characters studies; when weighed together, they create a house of ever evolving perspectives and ideas that MacCandless both shares and learns. What’s interesting here is how every individual chooses to interpret this strange fellow—some feel paternal and protective, as do two hippies (Brian Dieker and Catherine Keener), some merely cheer him on (Thure Lindhardt and Signe Egholm Olsen, in the film’s most comical scene), and at least one falls hopelessly in love with him (Kristen Stewart, a young actress to keep a close eye on); regardless of the range in these reactions, and whether they fully approve of his dreams or not, all are eventually inspired by his contagious freedom. Every viewer will come away with their own favorite moments; mine are two brief, quiet encounters: One in the middle section that involves a patient Burger King manager (Merritt Wever) softly informing McCandless that she is happy to contribute to his Alaska fund, but he needs to wear socks if he plans to work fast-food; another is toward the close, when an old man (Hal Halbrook) with whom McCandless has formed a special bond makes an unforgettable proposition.
The young man’s responses to both of these fellow travelers reveal everything right and wrong with his independent spirit—they eclipse what is so sad about this film, and what is ultimately so delightful: Yes, it’s tragic that he died, but Penn paints a picture of a young man who, for all his flaws, finally embraced his fate grudge-free—something only someone who is satisfied with themselves can do. Like any film about such a subject, we have a marriage of the sadness of self-destructive isolation and the triumph of someone who has learned to like themselves so much that no other company is required. I now believe that McCandless is simply one of those souls lost to his own wanderings, like Ethan Edwards (whose theme song in The Searchers also never answered the question, “What makes a man to wander?”) and McCandless’ ostracized hero Henry Thoreau. Penn speculates, probes, and questions this strange fellow, but he ultimately leaves McCandless’ enigmatic nature be, as the sum of the questions he provokes in us. And that’s ultimately where he belongs, as do all those great figures of literature and history condemned to wander the earth.
But we do have one final clue (don’t read any farther if you don’t want a spoiler—especially if you haven’t read the book): The signature on McCandless’ last statement to the world, found on the bus with his body, was his real name. It was the first time he used it in two years. Perhaps his trek across North America was not one to discover an untainted life, as he believed at first, but was rather a breakthrough into his untainted self. In his final moments, as he grasped onto life and reflected on the things that really mattered, it seems that he found peace in the revelation that who he is…is who he always was. It is a discovery so true that it makes us feel envious. Maybe his greatest flaw leading up to this breakthrough is that he took himself and his disdain for society too seriously and never truly thought out the consequences of his absolute scorn. But that’s alright; we forgive him and follow him along in his journey because we have all been guilty of that at some point. Just ask Lord Byron.
Emile Hirsch: Christopher McCandless
Jena Malone: Carine McCandless
William Hurt: Walt McCandless
Marcia Gay Harden: Billie McCandless
Catherine Keener: Jan Burres
Brian Dierker: Rainey
Vince Vaughn: Wayne Westerberg
Hal Halbrook: Ron Franz
Kristen Stewart: Tracy
Merritt Wever: Lori
Thure Lindhardt: Thomas
Signe Egholm Olsen: Thomas’ girlfriend
Zach Galifianakis: Kevin
Jim Gallien: Self
Paramount Vantage presents a film by Focus Features. Written and directed by Sean Penn. Based on the novel by Jon Krakauer. Rated R language, a scene of violence, and nudity. Running time: 140 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: September 21, 2007.