Say what you want about religion (and I can say plenty), but it certainly has helped to provide allegory for the artistic world. So familiar are the salient details of the basic premise of religion (especially Christianity in the USA), that even the most simple of artful comparisons may be noticed by the layperson. Sean Penn’s film Into the Wild is not solely a religious metaphor, nor do I think it is Penn’s central theme to the film. But when watching Penn’s adaptation of John Krakauer’s best selling book “Into the Wild” unfold on the big screen, I cannot help but think of the same desires and idealistic aspirations I once shared (as a younger man) with the film’s real life hero Christopher McCandless aka Alexander Supertramp (Emile Hirsch). Knowing the ultimate fate of McCandless’ adventure to be death, I cannot help (but to) personally view him as a Christ-like figure – which is to say he sacrificed himself (for all those like he), hoofing the trail to the west of his problems eventually leading him to his last adventure which will test his perseverance and threshold for lonliness out in the wilderness…alone. I seriously doubt McCandless intended on being a martyr for those of us who sought similar solitude, but his incorrigible disposition notwithstanding, he made it to that place many of us wanted to be, and with this emotionally wonderful film of his story, we get to feel the virtue and misfortune of his journey in the most visceral way possible.
Because we know the fate of the film’s hero before we see it, Into the Wild has the pending doom feeling throughout its 148 minute run time. We know the story ends tragically and this makes for an uneasy feeling at times. I have now seen the film around four or five times and I have to say it has improved with each viewing. The reason for this is not only due to it being (quite simply) an enjoyable film, but because the more you grow accustom to Sean Penn’s construct of the story, the more you realize this film is a defense of McCandless’ actions and ultimate death. That isn’t to say a pretty picture is painted by Penn stating Parents bad – Rebellious child GOOD! Penn carefully displays the uniqueness of Chris’ mom and dad’s collective normalcy as his parents. The film actually begins by bypassing all of the minutiae that drove Chris to head to Alaska. Instead we see him being dropped off by a kind stranger named Jim Gallien** at the head of the Stampede Trail where Chris’ Alaskan journey begins. The film jumps back and forth to various points in between Chris’ college graduation at Emory University and his death in 1992 on the ‘Magic Bus’*** in the Alaskan wilderness.
By juxtaposing all off the significant moments of McCandless’ life during this nearly two year stretch, I believe Penn is first and foremost trying to pay the best homage he can to an extraordinary young man. He is celebrating McCandless’ bravery, and goes to great length to show Chris’ disdain he had for his parents, but I do not believe Penn is asking us to take sides nor is he taking a side himself. He paints broad strokes in the scenes with the McCandless family allowing for the tension between Chris and his parents (William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden) to indeed feel tense, but to disallow room for judgment. Sure the parents are flawed, but who isn’t….?
Chris’ younger sister Carine (Jena Malone) is the central narrator of the film. She and Chris have a lovingly close relationship – always there for one another to serve as an emotional blockade from their mom and dad’s hurtful arguments. It is therefore especially heartbreaking to hear Carine speak (in narration) of how she wishes Chris could have made an exception to his rule of silence, if only to drop her a line and say he is doing alright. Carine’s words and the way in which Jena Malone delivers them are a healthy support to the story; sure she is upset that she does not get to speak to her brother, but she lends an objective opinion and begrudgingly understands Christopher’s plight. Malone’s superb delivery of Carine’s narration is one of the film’s best attributes and is a masterstroke of direction by Penn to include and apply it to the film the way we hear and see it. With a kind voice, Malone is sympathetically critical of Christopher and thus (subtly) forcing objectivity (as it pertains to judging Chris) on to the viewers.
As the film’s chronology doubles back on itself, we are afforded the chance of meeting some interesting film characters, all incarnations of real life people Chris met and made privy to his intended Alaskan voyage. There’s Jan and Rainey (Catherine Keener & Brian H. Dierker), a sweet hippie couple Chris meets out on the road who we learn are Rubber Tramps to that of Chris’ moniker of Leather Tramp (they wander by car and Chris by foot). They briefly take in Chris and fall in love with his spirit despite his obstinate refusal to carry his past with him.
We briefly meet Sonja and Mads, a young and vibrant Danish couple on holiday in the United States where so far they’ve seen Las Vegas and Chris on the stone banks of the Colorado River.
Just before he heads directly to Alaska, Chris meets a nice and friendly old man named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook). We learn Ron lost his wife and young son many years ago while he was in Europe for the Army. He takes a grandfatherly shine to Chris and instills him with a value of forgiveness and love. This is a powerful performance by Holbrook; despite his short amount of screen time, Holbrook makes quite the impact on us, making us wish Chris takes Ron up on his kind offer….
My favorite of the people Chris meets is Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), a grain elevator operator in South Dakota who befriends Chris and hires him to some part time work. Vaughn once again brings some comedic gravitas to a part that could’ve been just a stop-along character, but Vaughn gives Wayne a transcendent likability that shows what a good man he was for Chris to meet on his journey (even when he gets caught doing something not so good).
These characters and others Chris meets along the way all enrich his life in some way regardless of how brief the encounter. They arm him with knowledge he (possibly) already possessed, but to gain it from a fresh perspective from these people whom he senses have no ulterior motives may have allowed it to resonate more clearly in a way it never had before. Through these encounters we also are able to discern Chris’ voyage as one taken in earnest. He is not doing this to have a story to tell or even to rebel against his parents. Sure he may state surface reasons along the way, but these seem more spoken out of convenience (at the time) than anything else. He is recognized as a loved and loving soul who has a lot to offer anyone with whom he comes in contact. But through their heeds of caution, they understand what he is doing and that Chris must see it through….
Penn carefully allows Hirsch as McCandless to immerse himself in to the natural elements of the Alaskan wilderness, juxtaposing scenes of Chris’ disdain for the everyday “city life” to the harsh and unforgiving realities of nature. Chris ultimately realizes the virtues of his journey and thus feels accomplished in this path. He sought solitude and found it; it was not always as he imagined, but it was what he endured nonetheless and seemingly made peace with the idea of sharing his life. It would seem Chris always intended on returning to urban civilization, but nature had other things in mind.
This is truly a great American film; one we can be proud that circulates the annals of our country’s cinema. But more than that, it is a great American story. Heading west, setting out for the frontier in search and hope of a better place or better understanding of what we are all doing here. If I had to guess, I would say that Christopher McCandless would not want a movie made about his ultimately doomed trek to Alaska. He craved not fame, but spiritual adventure. I do think, however, that if Chris saw this film, he would be proud of it. I think he’d feel a sense of purpose in the filmmaking in that it is a cautionary tale of the indomitable spirit of man. I doubt Chris would agree with me and my comparison of him to Jesus insofar as a martyr. As the film depicts it, Chris reached a psychic plateau of love and wanting to share it; a place he could only get to by firstly taking this journey. While his death is tragically sad, it is not due to hubris; Chris had the knowledge that escape would lead to what he was looking for. His realization of shared love may not have been his intended salvation, but it’s not always about intentions, but rather how and where you end up. Chris’s tragedy is not a flaw, but a circumstantial occurrence of death. He went for the truth and in his death, taught those of us who care how to search for our own.
**The Jim Gallien character was played by the real life Jim Gallien.
***The Magic Bus is an abandoned bus Chris McCandless found smack dab in the middle of the Alaskan WIlderness. He made it his home base whilst in Alaska.