By Trey Stancher
In 1990, after graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Christopher McCandless forgoes a promising future in academics to pursue a solitary quest north to Alaska. He abandons his possessions and the expectations of his parents, gives his entire $24,000 savings to Oxfam International, and embarks on a two-year journey on which he would encounter a number of people that will shape the rest of his short life.
It’s a beautiful film, Into the Wild. It’s beautiful because it’s incredibly bittersweet. We all know how it ends, because it’s based on the real life revelation of Christopher McCandless, who was immortalized in articles in both Outside magazine and The New Yorker in 1993—the former of which was written by one Jon Krakauer, who went on to publish the biographical memoir Into the Wild of which the film is directly based on.
Written and directed by Sean Penn (his fourth film), it does much justice to the character of McCandless. What I apprecite most about the film is how it avoids making a judgment call on its main character. The idea of “giving it all up” and travelling is a desire that is most commonly found in affluent white kids who feel that the privilege they are afforded is a burden. Whereas so many other people would have loved to have the life that McCandless had before heading north, McCandless himself had no problem throwing it all away, and it’s left to the viewer to judge the precise merits of the decision. Obviously, the decision was in poor judgment because McCandless died in the wilderness.
A simple-minded viewer watches Into the Wild with a cynical eye toward the spoiled white kid who wants to slum it before heading off into a life of droning service to high society. But, what McCandless’ journey represents even more so than the cliche suggests is an uncomfortable yearning for something indescribable. This is something we can all relate to; especially those of us that were never afforded the pleasures and privileges that McCandless was afforded.
Along the way he meets a hippie couple in Northern California and helps them mend their dissipating relationship, he finds work in South Dakota with a harvesting company but leaves when the owner (played by Vince Vaughn) is arrested for stealing cable. The film has the feel of a very lonely soul on a very lonely journey. McCandless is cursed by his own blind ambition to “find himself” and this self-inflicted curse in turn prevents him from recognizing that he is consistently turning away people he cares about. Along his winding trip, which takes him from South Dakota down to Mexico and back to California, he meets a young girl (played by Kristen Stewart) who develops emotions for him, though he rejects her due to her age. He departs once more and begins heading toward Alaska, where he would eventually meet his end, but before he does he comes in contact with an old man named Ron (played by Hal Holbrook) in the desolate and ravaged Salton City region of California.
Ron takes McCandless in, teaching him the craft of leatherworking. Ron’s family died long ago in a car accident. Unlike McCandless, Ron had no choice in losing his family, and he grows quite fond of Christopher. After a few months Christopher grows restless once more and decides to leave. Ron is of course upset by this development, but McCandless practically makes a habit out of abandoning those who care about him.
The heart of Into the Wild can be found in both his relationship with Ron and the ensuing experience in Alaska. The film is rooted in a sense lost hope in a modern world. McCandless is a winding rocket with no discernable target to deliver its promising payload. He’s got a lot of potential, and he’s abandoned all of it to find himself. In his quest to develop a soul of his own he spurns the souls around him, all of which want nothing more than to help him find himself. McCandless is a lonely man in a lonely world who cannot for the life of him find what he is looking for, and he ends up dying in the wilderness. Alone.
His body would be found two weeks later in the abandoned school bus which he called home. Into the Wild isn’t about the trials and tribulations of a rich kid, it’s about a shameful development in the life of a young man with promise. He had nothing to drive him forward, so he went looking for the drive, and he found it… and it cost him his life. Into the Wild is a cautionary tale in which if there is anything that should be learned it’s that we can find what we’re looking for if we remain open to the providential nature of aging and experiencing. Into the Wild should make you want to grab the person you love and thank the gods that you have found the secret to life, because that’s all McCandless wanted, he just didn’t realize it until it was too late.
It’s a long film, but it’s beautifully paced and uses its significant cameos as a way to drive home the fleeting hope of Christopher McCandless’ life. The ending is almost perfect, as McCandless expires looking up at the sky we all share together as Eddie Vedder’s “Hard Sun” starts playing. It’s one of the most powerfully-sad films I have ever seen.