Movie Review: Into the Wild

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Disaffected, upper middle class college graduate Christopher McCandless decides to leave his belongings and responsibilities behind and hitchhikes his way to Alaska to discover the true meaning of life in the wild.

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Sean Penn, 2007

This film follows McCandless’s (Emile Hirsch) journey, intercut with scenes of his parents (William Hurt and a powerful Marcia Gay Harden) learning to cope with the disappearance of their son, narrated by Jena Malone as Christopher’s sister Carine and Hirsch reading from McCandless’s own writings. Jumping through time, the film follows McCandless as he becomes disillusioned with his troubled parents and the lies they’ve told and finishes university, making the decision to donate his life savings and take off into the American wilderness. He traverses the country, traipsing through vastly different landscapes and meeting an interesting variety of white people along the way. He creates an alterego, Alexander Supertramp, and records his philosophical musings along with records of the everyday necessities of living off the land with minimal supplies. Eventually, after finally getting to Alaska and setting up a home in an abandoned mini-bus, Chris accidentally ate a plant that proved poisonous and died out there in the wild.

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Sean Penn directed this film to critical acclaim in 2007, and to be fair, it’s a pretty and well-structured movie, much less confusing than my summary makes it seem. The dual focus on a strong performance from Emile Hirsch and the effect that Chris’s disappearance has on his family creates a powerful narrative that explores different perspectives on his quest for spiritual enlightenment. His family suffered greatly while he went off to find himself, because as far as they knew, he’d just disappeared – he informed no-one of his plans and arranged for their mail to be held at the post office, and the first information they had on him was that his car was found abandoned by the side of the road. They never saw him again, and this profoundly affected their relationship. Carine is the most sympathetic and understanding sister you could imagine, but it’s still hard to get past Chris’s abandonment of his family and the pain he put them through unnecessarily. The hardest thing for me to get past was Chris’s selfishness. There’s a strong element of white upper-class escapist fantasy fulfillment in this movie. Chris is educated, determined, ambitious in his own way, and utterly self-centred – the people he meets give him life lessons and then he leaves them in his dust. He has escaped society, which to him means he’s escaped all responsibility – as a son, a brother, a friend, and the pain that he left behind has no effect on him whatsoever. He does come to the conclusion that the human experience is best shared just before he dies of a completely preventable poisoning that he could have been treated for if he’d taken anything at all with him with which to signal for help. His own hubris was his downfall, and that may be poignant, but it also cheapens the story. There’s a level of privilege in the fantasy of running away from it all, relying on your own smarts and knowledge to live on the land, that I think the movie suffers from as well. I often found my attention drifting when Chris goes on a philosophical ramble or quotes authors to support his wacky adventure.

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The real Christopher McCandless.

The movie is shot beautifully, with stunning shots of American scenery and an unflinching but fascinating look at what it takes to survive out there in the wild. The music is lovely, and there are a few good supporting roles. Catherine Keener almost steals the show as aging hippie Jan. Vince Vaughn provides an injection of energy just as the film starts to feel slow, and Hal Holbrook got an Oscar nomination…for some reason. I mean, he’s fine, but I wouldn’t have said he was Oscar-worthy. Kristen Stewart is also on good form here in a minor role. The alternate lifestyles in the film are intriguingly portrayed, giving a peek into a rich tapestry of lives lived off the grid. It’s just such a blindingly frustrating core narrative that I found it hard to get past.  Also, there’s a weird moment while Chris eats an apple where he looks directly into the camera.  Why?  Who knows!

Into the Wild on IMDb

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