Into the Wild (2007) is an independent biographical drama, directed by Sean Penn and adapted from a book of the same name. The book, written by John Krakauer, focuses on the travels of Christopher McCandless through America and Alaska. I was drawn to watch this film as it had very good reviews and sounded similar to the film Wild, with Reese Witherspoon, which I really quite liked. Both films focus (obviously) on travel but also human relationships, which I find really interesting, and consequently Into the Wild stood out for me and left me sitting at my computer screen feeling inspired, dazed, overwhelmed and confused. Which is always a good starting point for a review! Christopher McCandless graduates from Emory University in 1990 with high honours. Shortly afterwards, however, he destroys all of his identification documents, cuts up all of his credit cards and donates his savings of $24,000 to Oxfam before taking off in his car, never to be seen again by his family or friends. His aim: to reject all conventional life and dive into the wild. The story is told brilliantly by avoiding chronological order; the film flits between the present – Chris fighting for survival in Alaska – and the run up to the present, so essentially his journeys and the people he meets along the way. I thought this was a great way of telling the tale as we want to know how Chris ended up where he was and at the same time are invested in whether or not he will survive living where he is living on his “Magic Bus” in Alaska. The film is also narrated at points by Chris’ younger sister Carine, which I thought was an interesting choice as Chris keeps a journal about his adventures and I half-expected those to be used instead. Having said that, the real family of Chris McCandless did play an important role in the making of the film; Chris obviously had a bad relationship with his parents in the past and makes this known to us as an audience, however anything too open would have been a reason for his family to sue the film company. This bad relationship is obviously a reason for Chris’ need to leave his conventional life, as well as his disinterest in all types of material things and the idea of careers etc.
In short, Chris travels through Arizona, California, South Dakota and briefly, Mexico, meeting a variety of people along the way. He encounters hippie couple Jan and Rainey, who he becomes very close to, Tracy, the girl who has a crush on him, Wayne Westerberg, who he works for for a few months until Wayne is arrested for satellite piracy, a fun-loving Swedish couple and an old man called Ron, whose relationship with Chris is probably the most poignant in the whole film. Chris definitely benefits from his encounters with these people but it also seems that Chris manages to inspire them a huge amount as well; he firmly stands by what he believes in and has a very carefree but almost wise attitude towards the life he has chosen to lead – he isn’t necessarily understood by everyone but he is likeable nonetheless. However, once Chris gets to Alaska, things change a great deal and it emerges that perhaps Chris is not quite as worldly and as prepared as he thought. Up until this point, he has managed well and he obviously has taken some time for researching; we see him poring over books for hours, which would have been the case in an era just before the Internet. Still, he is given invaluable advice by the people he meets as well – Wayne teaches him how to kill a big animal and preserve its meat while Ron gives Chris a load of useful gear and clothes for his trip to Alaska. Chris obviously has the right mind-set when it comes to appreciating the beauty of nature and simplicity but when he encounters the hardships of living in the wild, it becomes a struggle to maintain that mind-set.
The movie was beautifully filmed and is aesthetically very pleasing; like I said, the way the story is told is also, I think, done in a brilliant way and on top of that, there is some great acting and memorable moments. I want to now focus on the themes and what is conveyed by the film on a deeper level. It generated mixed reviews concerning Chris’ character and the whole idea of delving into the wild. Chris is, for me, certainly a three-dimensional character; he is philanthropic and concerned about the state of the world as well as being thankful and humble to those he meets along his journey. It did make me want to roll my eyes a little bit, you know, at the whole ‘I’m a free spirit and I feel alienated so I’m going to go to extremes and go live in a cave somewhere’ because although I’m sure everybody has these feelings, not everyone decides to hide in the desert in not-so perfect peace. At the end of the day though, there are people who are genuinely happy with going to the extremes and Chris is obviously one of them – he does have a privileged life but I suppose having good family relations is better than being well-off. We are told that his father is abusive and also had an affair; he has another son outside of his marriage to Chris and Carine’s mother. This made me believe that Chris was greatly affected by the existence of his half-brother and is maybe another reason for him feeling alienated and not understanding who he truly is. I know that sounds kinda deep but I can understand why you may have an identity crisis after finding out about another person who is exactly like you but the product of a messy relationship. Anyway, Chris obviously does come across as a self-indulgent person, given the fact that he tells no-one about going off into the wild. His parents are distraught and not really deserving of what they are given. Chris obviously wants to travel through life by himself despite being touched by different people along the way. He always disappears, leaving no big warning. He will always put himself first – that is the message that comes across. And that is something very raw – the essence of human survival.
At one point, Chris says to Ron ‘…you’re wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships. God’s placed it all around us. It’s in everything. In anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at those things.’ I thought this was quite a meaningful reflection. It’s interesting though because right before Chris dies (spoiler alert, soz!) he writes in one of his books ‘happiness is only real when shared’, which I think is a quote from elsewhere but nonetheless, it’s very sad that Chris realises this while he is slowly being drained of life by a poisonous root. I do agree with this quote to an extent…I guess I would say that happiness can be heightened when shared, perhaps. I do feel it’s possible to be content in solitude. It reminded me of a poem called The Garden by Andrew Marvell, which is all about nature and finding bliss in solitude etc. I think it’s a subject that I’d definitely like to explore more; nature, for me, is a really fascinating theme. For now though, I will say that nature is neither friend nor foe, which I think Chris realises. Nature just goes about its business. Although there is beauty in nature, Chris ends up dying from eating an inedible root, a seemingly unnecessary death. Although it’s very tragic on many levels, especially for the people Chris is leaving behind, in a sense, you can kind of see that he obtained what he really wanted. The end scene shows the changing of the scenery and the Magic Bus lying among the greenery of the landscape – Chris has truly become one with nature. As you can tell, it’s a film I could probably talk about for a long time but in a nutshell, go and watch it! Films that can be discussed for ages are the best kind of films. Let me know what you think!