Into the Wild (2007)

Directed by Sean Penn

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I’ve had a hard time getting Christopher McCandless out of my head this week.  While in a Wisconsin cabin I picked up Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, learning in more detail about McCandless’ journey which I had first come to know about upon the film’s release over a decade ago.  Armed with some further insight into his story and his being I felt less drawn to his romantic ideas and more weary of those who seek to make him a martyr.

And yet while I was out kayaking through a placid lake or running along trails that betrayed few signs of nearby civilization I couldn’t help but imagine I was following in his footsteps, engaging in some way with the pure, raw experience he so sincerely pursued.

It’s hard to consider this film on a single level.  You can look at it in terms of how it presents a story, what side it takes on that story, and then you can just get lost in your own personal feelings on McCandless himself.

I was frustrated by the occasional broad strokes with which Penn told this story and certain moments (akin to poor melodrama or ham-fisted emotional beats), but dammit I felt myself pulled into the tragic, awfully tender rhythms of McCandless’ own worldview, which the film itself adopts.

This is a romantic film.  It does touch on the tragedy of McCandless’ death as well as, more importantly I think, the overwhelming sense of grief felt by both his parents (the film opens with his mother waking from a nightmare), but these moments are so easily drowned out by the Eddie Vedder-scored music video montages of McCandless (Emile Hirsch) appearing to live in ecstasy out in the wild.

These moments lack nuance and instead feel like adventure porn for people who know little about the great outdoors (myself included).  We don’t see how McCandless gets from place to place or how he builds for himself the tools needed to survive.  This isn’t a wilderness survival film but instead just some sort of fantasy about stubborn, idealistic youth.

And the more I think about the film the more I think it works if you accept that McCandless isn’t a person here, he’s an idea.  There is enough time and attention (though barely) given to what he gives up and who he hurts by so quickly cutting off contact with his family.  He lives for himself with little care for those around him.  While he does touch the lives of so many people, it’s less a give and take and more just him spouting out ideas about how to live and the people around him lending their ears.

The film suggests that McCandless did in fact touch all their lives and change them for the better, and in that way he’s like a more plotless MacGuffin, intervening and fixing their problems.  He shows them how to live more fully, and yes that’s a bit reductive and surely detached from the man’s own experience, but it’s clearly what Sean Penn is after here.

So you have to accept that, that this is his perspective, and that through this young man’s story he sees an idea he wants to express.

But then again the film does show and feel the doom that surrounds McCandless’ life.  As mentioned before the film opens with his mother waking from a nightmare, breathless and frantic.  It’s not the hopeful, call to adventure that we might expect to open a film of this sort.

Then it’s a while before we even see McCandless’ face.  He is a dot on the horizon, a backpack-clad silhouette or a blurry object in the foreground.  Before we ever see him clearly we see around him, we see people looking at him, and we see people remembering him.  He is, after all, just a memory, a force that has by now entered into hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives, thanks to Krakauer’s book and then this film.

McCandless is an enigma, and while this film doesn’t claim to know everything about him (it faithfully follows the book, yada yada-ing a few segments here and there), it treats him as a romantic figure but perhaps not a sustainable one.  McCandless’ death is telegraphed from the beginning, the story constructed around his final resting place in the Alaska wilderness, while it revisits the two years that brought him there.

From the very beginning the film doesn’t hide that we’re on a path downward.  It’s thus a story that is both romantic, idyllic and temporary.  It is as though McCandless is an almost supernatural force that touches all these characters and disappears as if he was never there.  The way I see it McCandless in this film is a phase of life, or a feeling.  It’s that part of us that wreaks havoc when we’re at a certain age, and with enough time it fades away, a blazing bonfire reduced to a more manageable smolder.

So I think Penn made this film as a way of paying respect to the irrational person inside all of us, the one that disappears and who, when regarded with enough time and distance, starts to feel all the more fanciful.  From afar you see what you admire and forget what lurked around the edges.

Up Next: The Pledge (2001), Free Solo (2018), The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

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