Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)
Category: When I covered 127 Hours last year, I called it a sad movie about extreme outdoorsy types and the consequences of their extreme outdoorsiness. At the time I talked about my uneasiness with those people and their actions, but obviously still find myself vicariously drawn to stories about them. Any kind of irrational behavior is just inherently interesting, I suppose. It’s why we all watch Jersey Shore.
Into the Wild is also a sad movie with a controversial/douchey protagonist. Christopher McCandless, played in the film by Emile Hirsch, was a very complex and polarizing young man. Opinions about him and his fateful trek have been quite divided since the publication of Jon Krakauer’s book, on which the film is based. Some believe McCandless is a romantic, misunderstood soul whose adventures are comparable to those of the transcendentalists. Others see him as an idiotic, inconsiderate fool, who abandoned his family for a selfish, pointless quest. I guess the sadness of the movie, for you, depends on which side of the line you fall on. No matter where you stand, however, we can all agree that his pseudonym, Alexander Supertramp, is fannnntastic. But we’ll get to my actual opinion later.
Also, for the first time ever on the blog, this is a sad movie based on a book that I have recently read! Reading is fun(damental), everyone. Even when reading sad books! In fact, I’m thinking of starting an official Taste My Sad Book Club, and am currently soliciting dour ladies in the greater DC area to join me.
My familiarity with this issue: Known Alaskan adventurer and FOTB Ellen Barr is currently in(to) the wild, but I trust she and her cohorts have more maps and food and contact with the outside world than Christopher McCandless. Several other FsOTB do enjoy the nature, and I applaud them for that. But, of course, since my year in (wild and wonderful) West Virginia, the furthest into the wild that I’ve personally traveled to is Northeast DC.
Christopher McCandless’s trek into the Alaskan wild was the last part of his two-year-long, post-college odyssey throughout North America. A great deal of that time was spent hitchhiking, which is one of the most terrifyingly stupid things for a person to do, according to me, and every authority figure I knew when I was a kid. Hitchhiking was probably the activity that I was most strongly prohibited from doing, with the possible exception of drunk driving. (Because with drunk driving, at least you're in control of the situation! I'm so sorry.) Sure, hitchhikers apparently write popular guides to the galaxy, but they are also frequently stabbed by the crazy dudes who pick them up. Unless it’s an emergency, I can think of no activity that I would be more wary of doing, save for eating broccoli.
I’m writing this on Friday, so let’s also note that there is a good chance that I will get to experience what it’s like to live in the wild after this weekend #hurricaneirene #myhouseisold. (Update: #thehouseisstillstanding.)
Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Based on a true story. After graduating from Emory University, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wilderness. Along the way, Christopher encounters a series of characters who shape his life.”
What I thought of the movie: It’s crazy good. And real sad. It’s two and a half hours long but never really drags. There’s a lot to cover, and Sean Penn ably covers everything that matters: from the people he meets during his trek, to his desolate final months in Alaska, to the story of his family’s fruitless search for him. This is important, and tricky, but Penn pulls it off via voiceover narration by McCandless’s sister (played by Jena Malone, late of Stepmom, OOF). All the actors in the movie are great, too: particularly Emile Hirsch as the protagonist, and Hal Holbrook as Ronald Franz, his elderly friend in California. (The stuff with Franz was by far the best part of the book, for me, and Penn wisely saves this episode of McCandless’s story until the end, almost two hours into the movie. Seriously, the book/movie are worth reading/seeing for that episode alone.)
I’ve read a lot of reviews that say that the movie is so good because it’s a personal story for Sean Penn. I suppose this implies that many film critics think that Sean Penn is a crazy person. And that might be true. But I think it’s because Penn understands McCandless’s contradictions, and is able to see both sides of the debate over his character. At times, McCandless is depicted as an impetuous child, at others, as a visionary thrill-seeker (in the most virtuous/inspirational sense of that term). It’s clear that Penn (and Krakauer) view McCandless in a positive light, often extremely positive. But the movie doesn’t force us to agree with this view, which I appreciated.
How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: This one is as close to zero percent as we get in this category. Christopher McCandless graduated from college, and occasionally had a beard. That’s basically what we’ve got in common here.
I went into reading the book assuming that I would think McCandless was either a kook or an asshole. I think the latter is far truer than the former. As a sheltered, air-conditioning-dependent white man, I have a great deal of respect for people who have any sort of practical knowledge at all (how to “live off the land” or “fix cars” or “cook food”). McCandless was foolish, yes, but to survive that long, homeless and car-less and often penniless, is something that I could never do. Not that I would ever want to, of course. Having a home has always been one of my core values.
I think the main complaint about McCandless – that he was dumb and not respectful of the harsh realities of nature – kind of misses the point. For the most part, he didn’t really care about other people or what they thought of him. He never asked for help, often turning it down when it was offered to him. He never requested the aid of the government, or emergency services, or anything like that. If he had survived, I can see him having become a Tea Party Congressman from Alaska, not bathing for weeks, stinking up the House building even more than Boehner’s spray tan. So maybe he was dumb, but you can’t kill him for that. There are plenty of dumber people in Alaska.
I’m glad that Penn didn’t give short shrift to the plight of McCandless’s family. He pretty much tricked them into not being able to ever find him again, having his mail held at the post office until months after he departed on his trek, so that he’d have a head start. McCandless’s animosity toward his parents was not unjustified, but it’s no excuse. He was, as mentioned before, an asshole. He toyed with the emotions of his parents and his sister, with whom he was purportedly very close, as he did with the people with whom he came into contact on his journey. McCandless possessed very real charisma. He was a unique, singular force in the lives of many people who he met. Whether he wanted to do so or not, he had a major effect on dozens of people who he met along the way, not to mention his family. And he didn’t give a shit about any of them. I can’t get down with that.
How I felt after the movie ended: And yet, as mentioned, both the book and the movie were transfixing. As a testament to what human beings are capable of, and the documentation of an extreme, they are essential. Especially to people like me. The hurricane has now passed, but if you think I’m going to go outside at any point in the next week, you’re as crazy as Christopher “Ron Paul 2012” McCandless.