Synopsis: Into The Wild is inspired by the true story of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man who abandons his life of comfort to pursue the freedom of life on the road, a quest that leads him to the Alaskan wilderness and the ultimate challenge of his life. Screenplay and directed by Sean Penn and featuring an all-star cast including William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and Hal Halbrook.
Into the Wild 8.0
eyelights: the cast. the journey. the cinematography. the landscapes. the score.
eyesores: its tragic story. the over-emphasis of Alex’s emaciation.
“Happiness only real when shared”
In 2013, one of my best friends gave me ‘Into the Wild’ for my birthday; he had seen it and really wanted to discuss it with me. Sadly, as with many other DVDs or CDs that I get/buy, it was swept up in a deluge of media and got relegated to “another day, another time”.
Recently, after drifting apart for the better part of a year, he and I pledged to schedule some hang out time. One his main requests was for us to watch some of the movies he had given me in recent years. And, naturally, the first on his list was this award-nominated film.
Released in 2007, this Sean Penn adaptation is based on the eponymous book by Jon Krakauer, which recounts the true story of Christopher McCandless’ 1992 attempt to survive in the Alaskan wilderness on his own, after having journeyed across America for over two years.
The picture is partly narrated by his sister Carine (incarnated here by Jena Malone), providing insight into Chris’ thought process and into the dysfunctional family dynamics that led him there. Emile Hersh, who plays Christopher, also reads excerpts of the latter’s letters/diary.
‘Into the Wild’ is non-linear, jumping back and forth between Chris’ survival in Alaska and his two-year journey from his home in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s broken up into a series of chapters denoting his personal progress: Birth, Adolescence, Manhood, Family and Getting of Wisdom.
The first thing to hit me was the visual splendour of the piece: beautifully shot, with many bits looking like moving postcards, there were some rather breathtaking sights. It’s a wonder why cinematographer Eric Gauthier didn’t get more recognition for his work here.
The next thing to catch my attention was the character of Christopher McCandless’. Here he was portrayed as an eager and eternally optimistic young adult trying to live in the moment and connect with the world. He’s shown deliberately trying to strip himself of society’s demands.
He seemed charming and likable, and it made me wonder what a conversation with him would be like. In some instance, such as when he is depicted talking to an apple that he’s eating, I wondered about the state of his mind. Could he be masking a deteriorating mental health?
I loved that he questioned the status quo. His incredulity at the notion that he needed a permit to go paddle down a river, and that there was then a wait list of over twelve years to do it (or he could join an organized group and it would cost 2 grand for the experience!) amused me much.
I loved that he was gutsy, that he challenged authority where the rules didn’t make sense. I’m not a big proponent of this philosophy in practice (if you disagree with the rules, your responsibility as a citizen is to get them changed – not ignore them), but I do enjoy seeing it on the screen.
A perfect example of this is that he actually does paddle down the canyon anyway, after which he paddled all the way to Mexico. Unfortunately, when he tried to make his way back in the country, he hit a bit of a roadblock: having cut up all his cards, he couldn’t prove he was a U.S. citizen.
Such is the life of anti-authoritarian.
Still, if not for his boldness, he wouldn’t have met so many terrific people, which is another thing I enjoyed. In his travels he met a pair of rubber hippies (i.e. he’s a leather hippy), worked with an agriculture worker, hung out with a young Swedish couple camping in a canyon, and met a young folk singer.
But the best of the bunch is saved for last:
At one point, he gets lift from an old man to some hot springs and they strike up a friendship. He and the man have lengthy philosophical conversations about the meaning of life, during which he finds out the man has been on his own ever since his spouse and son were killed by a drunk driver.
Their friendship touches the old man, who offers to adopt Alex. Alex says they should talk about this upon his return.
Except that he never would: Chris’ expedition to Alaska didn’t quite turn out the way that he’d expected and, due to circumstances that are still debated today, he perished in the wild on August 18, 1992, after having lived in an abandoned bus on his own for well over six weeks.
Ultimately, ‘Into the Wild’ is merely an interpretation; we don’t actually know what happened, or how Chris was on his journey.
In any event, the crux of the film is when Alex tells the old man that relationships are unnecessary, that God has put everything else there to fulfill them. That is the overarching theme of his journey, with him trying to disconnect from the rest of humanity in order to reconnect with the universe.
Except that it’s the very relationships he denigrates in that moment that allowed him to get to where he was in his travels, to survive, providing him with knowledge, wisdom and direct assistance when needed. Sadly, in the film’s climax, he would learn these lessons – too late. But still.
‘In the Wild’ stands nearly completely on the various personalities that we encounter; these characters pepper what would otherwise be a one-person journey. The performances are all very good, starting with Hirsch; it’s a terrific cast filled with so many stars and familiar faces, it’s unreal.
But my two favourites are Hal Holbrook, as the old man, and Kristen Stewart as the folk singer: Holbrook gave us a more seasoned performance than usual here; gone was the knife’s edge that I’ve always known him for. As for Stewart, well, look at the way her eyes devour Chris. Wow.
Another important aspect of the picture is the music: a combination of songs by Eddie Vedder and traditional score enliven it. Vedder’s voice fills in the void so amazingly well; he sort of becomes a surrogate, intertwined with Chris. I’m not sure it would play well without the images, however.
After the movie, my friend explained to me just how personal this film was, in that it sort of mirrored his own state of being and personal journey. While he hadn’t gone to Alaska to die, he did disappear to New Zealand for eight months on his own to fend for himself and relished the experience.
It was a significant moment in his life, maybe even a transformative one.
We spoke about that moment in time, about his way of being in the world and exchanged personal stories, including some fairly formative ones; it was one of the most personal conversations that we’d had in the longest times. We chatted for a few hours, talking longer than the film lasted.
As much as I enjoyed ‘Into the Wild’, ultimately, I will remember watching it because it meant something to my friend. But, also, because it coincided with a precise moment in time when we were tightening a bond that was unraveling. The movie’s message, after all, is “Happiness (is) only real when shared”.
May we never forget.
Post scriptum: As a parting note, I have to comment on film’s R-rating, which is due to language and nudity – brief nudity, first in a flash of Chris buck naked, floating down a river, and then as he passes by a nudist commune. And yet ‘The Dark Knight‘, which had an ungodly amount of violence in it, was PG-13.
So, in our society, violence is considered normal, but nudity is considered objectionable? What exactly does that say about us? Personally, I think it’s high time we reconsider our values. There’s no way I would prefer my kids to accept random acts of senseless violence over the beauty of the human body.
What a world we live in…
Date of viewing: April 2, 2016