Directed by Sean Penn. USA. 2007.


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Chris McCandless, a young man of twenty four took his last breath in this world in August 1992 - alone. Found starved to death in an abandoned bus in Denali Park, near Fairbanks, Alaska, he had left his affluent home in the Southern U.S. after graduating from Emery College, tuned in to the call of the wild, turned on to the spirit of Jack Kerouac and Henry Thoreau, and dropped out of a society he rejected for its commercialism and greed. Directed by Sean Penn and based on Jon Krakauer’s book about Chris’ life, Into the Wild is a celebration of youth with its idealism, desire for adventure, and also its arrogance and short-sightedness. Penn, who seems deeply connected to his subject, consulted with Chris’ parents after waiting ten years for their approval to undertake the project. The result is a sweet, thoughtful, and deeply moving film but, like its main protagonist, full of contradictions.  

The debate over whether Chris was a highly evolved truth seeker or a vengeful and self destructive personality is not answered either in the book or the film. Ever looking for the real McCandless, Penn fills in the gaps with a semi-idealized version but since the only knowledge we have of the real person is from Chris’ journals, letters, novels and poems, and the thoughts of his sister Carine (Jena Malone) narrated in voiceover, who he was remains maddeningly elusive. In spite of Chris’ ultimate discovery about the true nature of happiness, Into the Wild is not a message film but a voyage of discovery in which a headstrong young man gradually acquires the wisdom to reach out to others, even to his parents in a fevered dream. More than a story about a return to nature, or a white middle class youth’s protest against his parent’s values, it is a search for authenticity in a world that has forgotten what truth looks and feels like.  

Chris is engagingly played by Emile Hirsch who had to ride the rapids of the Colorado River and lose 45 pounds in the process of making the film. He brings a quality of instant likeability to his role, though at times he skirts around the edges of the character without fully inhabiting him. The film is divided into four chapters that signal Chris’s growing maturity. It begins in Alaska, then flashes back to the two-year journey that brought him to this point. Along the way, he gives away his $24,000 inheritance to charity, burns all of his money, abandons his car, changes his name, and hitchhikes across the country and up to Alaska, never once communicating with his distraught family.  

It was part of Chris’ contradiction that he rejected human relationships, yet was able to give of himself to those he met along the way. He makes a friend of Wayne (Vince Vaughn) his boss as a farm worker in South Dakota, an 81-year old retired veteran (Hal Holbrook) who offers to adopt him, a 16 year-old singer-songwriter (Kristen Stewart), and a pair of aging free spirits Rainey and Jana (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker). These contacts appear to be genuine but McCandless keeps his distance. When Jana tells Chris about her own son who ran away and hasn’t been heard from in two years, he seems curiously unmoved and is silent when Jana tells him how children are often cruel to their parents.  

Backed by original songs by Eddie Vedder that never seem discordant, Into the Wild is a beautiful film that should be remembered at Oscar time, if only for Hal Holbrook’s masterful supporting performance. Though it occasionally lapses into clichés such as Chris telling Tracy that “If you want something in life, reach out and grab it” and melodramatic scenes where the sun emerges from the clouds just at the right moment, the film has a grasp of the grit of life and ultimately becomes transcendent. While we may rightly view Chris’ short life as a tragedy, but as Albert Einstein says, “the real tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives”.  

Whatever else could be said about Chris, and as a parent I am appalled by his cruelty in refusing to contact his mother and father or even his sister for a period of two years, to him life was a game that was only worth playing 100%. Those who refuse to take risks in life may stand in judgment of McCandless and call him stupid, yet some have forgotten what it is like to be young and some never knew. He made mistakes, serious errors of judgment, yet in the end I am reminded of what George Bernard Shaw says, “I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no "brief candle" for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations." Chris McCandless life was a candle that burned brightly on both ends, then flickered and died but what he has passed on to us is a splendid torch. 


Howard Schumann
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