Into the Wild

One of the most complex films of the year opened in the area last week. No, it’s not another Spiderman remake or Adam Sandler comedy with adolescent slapstick humor. This one’s about adolescent longing. There’s no sex, very few drugs, and the only rock and roll is Eddie Vedder’s soulful sound track.
Director Sean Penn’s INTO THE WILD is a beautiful exploration of the sloppy search for adolescent freedom and transcendence, its rewards and risks. It’s based on a true story documented by John Krakauer’s best-selling book by the same title. You might have at least heard the plot line by now: Soon after graduating from Emory University privileged Chris McCandless gives his $24,000 trust fund to Oxfam, drives west, leaves his old Toyota abandoned off-road, burns his last few hundreds of dollars, bums around channeling the literary ghosts of Jack Kerouac and Jack London, paddles the Colorado River, and finally heads north, “into the wild” to discover the meaning of life among big mountains.

After that, things turn both good and bad. Chris (who took the road name “Alexander Supertramp”) screws up and can’t ford a glacial river to walk out when he’s ready to return to civilization. He starves, tries foraging for food, reads the field guide wrong, and eats a wild plant that kills him. Chris/Alex ends up dying filled with light in an old city bus somebody’s hauled into the woods for a hunting cabin.

In the end he’s staring at the sky looking for a transcendence he’s searched for since childhood in literature and experience. Like so many careless artists and searchers, he dies in his early twenties. His body is later found by moose hunters, and his sister flies his ashes home.

Director Sean Penn is the master of little things: an entire contemporary poem is recited on screen early on. When else has that happened in an American film? And later, a whole paragraph of Leo Tolstoy appears on screen from a story Chris is reading in the bus to gain enlightenment. When was the last time “text” was a minor character in any film? It’s enough to make an English professor proud.

There are wonderful animal moments too-gulls playing in the waves on an isolated beach, birds in endless sky, caribou in Alaska, a fly-blown moose carcass, even a grizzly bear visitor to camp, all postcards from “more-than-human world” you’d expect in a film about wildness.

I always tell my beginning literature students not to neglect pondering the title, and in this case it’s a big fat finger pointing to the story’s theme.

Examining “wildness” is the point of this film, and the search for it is something you usually see Hollywood directors exploring in cities through murder, greed, graft, sex, and swindling, good American anti-values.

On a personal level, I saw my own idealistic wasted youth spattered across the screen in vivid colors. (Hello, my name is John and I too wanted at 22 to walk “into the wild” and act like I had no past or future.”)

I’m glad I didn’t walk quite as far in as Chris McCandless. I’m glad I didn’t end up dead in that bus in Alaska. But I think I could have. I like it when a film shows another possible me that I somehow bypassed. I was inches away a dozen times from being Chris. But I never went that far “into the wild.” Don’t most of us have that storyline?

Penn seems to be saying we’d be better off as a society if everybody found their own “wild” and explored their connections to life as Chris did. I think had things not gone bad, Chris would have come back out and taken his place among us. He would have made up with his family and gotten a job. But in a story they say only conflict is interesting, so it didn’t work out that way.

Chris might have been able to read Tolstoy, but he had serious trouble with his field guide to edible plants. After college, he made an A on enlightenment, but failed natural history. His final grade is C – average. His mistakes killed him. His story makes us think about all the bullets we dodged. Go see the film and decide whether Chris McCandless is an idiot or a hero. I see him as both, maybe a necessary tension in life.

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