Director: Sean Penn
Writer: Sean Penn; based on Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Cinematographer: Eric Gautier
Producer: Sean Penn, Art Linson, and Bill Pohlad
by Jon Cvack
My friend had been urging me to read Jon Krakauer’s book since he finished it, which I found at a thrift store while on vacation in Donner Lake. I’ve enjoyed the two other Krakauer books I’ve read - Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, admiring his ability to seamlessly navigate between such a broad range of ideas, from motives to the philosophy to science or history. Into the Wild accomplishes the same, all the more impressive for its 200 and change page length.
I had seen the movie when it first came out, excited for Sean Penn’s fourth feature film (I actually thought it was his first, in addition to an early film The Indian Runner ('91) starring himself and sounding pretty good, he directed Jack Nicholson in two other films - The Cross Guarding ('95) and The Pledge ('01)). I recall liking but not loving this film, seeing its main character Chris McCandless as someone far too close to my own age and therefore coming across as kind of an asshole. Eleven years later, although the film started out with a terribly cheesy credit sequence, I soon discovered a film about an idealistic and naive young man whose strong convictions combined with a complete lack of outdoor experience caused his quick demise. What the film fails to fully capture is the brief timeline of his journey, let alone his destination. The story spans just two years, where he dies within three months of reaching his end goal destination of Alaska. College is just around the time I noticed how quickly life was accelerating and by now two years is but a blink of an eye, and yet he was able to live such a wild and respectable adventure that it poses a fascinating question that I recall debating when I first saw it - was what McCandless did noble?
While the book and film diverge in significant ways, with Penn rightfully forfeiting some of the most interesting sections of the book in order focus on the more engaging visual portions, it’s also some of the best supporting material to help understand the question. Krakauer compares McCandless to numerous others throughout American history, all similar in age, who all felt a peculiar yearning for adventure and taking oneself to the limits of mortality. The reasons verge from grand political missions such as forfeiting all dependence on any government or person, to those who wanted to live a grand life of adventure. Jon Krakauer tells his own story about being a young kid who went climbing up a mountain alone in a remote region of the world, where due to pure luck he was able to be saved before starving to death, failing to climb the mountain, though not for a lack of going far further than he should have.
It’s by telling these stories and learning of the broad range of reasons and purpose that Krakauer puts it on us the reader to decide where Chris resided on the spectrum. He was a smart kid, who was well read, and yet also referred to himself as “Alexander Supertramp”, wrote subpar poetry and, counter to Krakauer and the others, had little outdoor experience. The issue is that, having grown up in the suburbs, he had no control over his experiences. It was through reading Walden and Emerson and Jack London that he grew inspired to take a similar journey, demonstrating the vast power some books contain. Ideas of serious thinkers and phenomenal writers were enough for Chris to abandon what could have been a fulfilling and relatively comfortable life for most other people. It’s that alienation that I think most creative or outdoorsy types can relate to; wanting to surround yourself with something more meaningful and beautiful, and dealing with an environment where it’s increasingly more difficult to do that. To think Chris had the courage to at least try and live those ideas, however naive, is something that deserves respect. Unfortunately he was too young to know any better.
Chris’ sister Carine (Jena Malone) narrates the entire story, taking us through Chris’ graduation and without a word to his parents or Carine, burns all forms of ID, donates his life’s savings and graduate school funds to charity, hops in his car, and drives to Lake Mead where his car gets caught up in an harbinger of a flash flood, where he then abandons his ride and proceeds to hitchhike to Northern California where he meets up with and couple and trailer nomads Jan Burress (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian H. Dierker) who’re struggling in their silver years. Jan takes a particularly strong liking to Chris, clearly seeing herself as a mother figure, who while we never know the details, can safely surmise that the possibility of children has passed, as the realities of their life decision have begun to take effect. Without heading into maudlin monologues about what they’ve learned throughout their years of travel, we understand their awareness. It is the life that Chris is headed toward, which perhaps not seeming all that bad, makes more meaningful relationships difficult, especially under the strain of tight quarters and little money. Later, Chris heads to South Dakota and meets up with satellite television pirate Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaugh; in one of his better roles).
Eventually Chris reaches the Colorado River, and in the most supportive moments of Chris’ cause, deals with a park ranger who informs him that there’s a year and half waiting list for those wanting to kayak down the river. While I'm sure a mixture of government bureaucracy and what I’m sure is nobly intentioned environmental concerns, the fact that a person can’t freely travel a river when they want is absurd and Chris is aware of that, using his little funds to buy a kayak and journey down without a pass. Soon he meets a pair of sexy European travelers who invite him on a new trip, though after agreeing, a ranger is heard around the bend and Chris is forced to leave and hide in order to avoid getting a fine or going to jail. I was left wondering where he might have ended should the ranger not have come at that particular moment and whether he would have met the same fate.
A scene that has long stuck with me is Chris’ return to Los Angeles, where his complete lack of funds and dependence on train hopping leads him to downtown and then to skid row where he’s fortunate to get a cot for the night amidst the record numbers of homeless people who’re forced to wait in the long lines with no guarantee. He tours the city, people watching, looking through restaurant windows and seeing himself and what could have been, getting overwhelmed into a borderline panic attack that he decides to hitch his way out immediately. Living in Los Angeles, I can only imagine what it’d be like to arrive with a gross antagonism to the idea of cities, as for a place that likes to consider itself liberal, has one of the most significant inequality problems in the nation; a contradiction that I’m sure contributed to Chris’ flighty exit.
Soon he ends up in Salton City where he meets one of the story’s most interesting characters, Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook); a man who lost his wife and son in a tragic accident, turning to whiskey for years before kicking the habit altogether. What the movie doesn’t explain is the Salton City’s history, which was meant to be another posh desert getaway per the likes of Palm Springs and failed to develop, leaving people like Ron with a nice home with little community beyond the hundreds of hippies that have journeyed out there in the hopes of living off the grid and building their own community. Like Jan, Ron grows fond of Chris, feeling as though he’s a son, inviting him into his home, and while the two share time together, they eventually part ways in one of the film’s most devastating scenes.
Chris ends up in Alaska and while there are moments of what appears fun and thrilling, also seems incredibly lonely, in which only by the mind going slightly crazy can one deal with the solitude. Humans are inherently social creatures; a fact that’s used to argue against solitary confinement due to the long term effects it can have on the mind. While I’m not sure if this could or did contribute to Chris’ poor judgment of eating toxic seeds (as the film and book demonstrate, they looked strikingly similar), what community does do is provide assistance with mistakes, either to help others avoid them, or to assist after they’re made.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book (that film for some reason excludes) is how there were a couple ranger cabins within a mile or so of Chris’s camp, or that he if he walked a mile up the river he could have found refuge. One of the cabins had actually been trashed, and while the rangers do not suspect McCandless, it does leave you wondering if he was just too stupid, scared, or stubborn to venture much further than his bus. I’m sure there were areas of thick growth, but even under tough terrain a mile could be walked in about half an hour, and while walking in the exact direction of the cabin is less likely, not wandering at least a mile up the river to look for a clearing, knowing food would grow more scarce and you would grow weaker, made little sense to me.
It’s a film that felt like the complete mirror the second time around, in which I saw it all from everyone else’s perspective. I respect and in small ways admire McCandless’ courage of his convictions and yet it was his selfishness in abandoning his family and all those he met who loved him that creates resentment, as he was so committed to his life and ideals at the cost of hurting so many others, it leaves you wondering what he was hoping to achieve. Bliss for him and pain for everybody else. At the same time, now being almost a decade from that I age, I recall the utter selfishness it contains, which can feel almost uncontrollable at times. He died before he ever progressed beyond that stage; before his mind could ever fully grasp the ideas he read and the larger implications they could create. This time I saw a film that was very much a coming of age story, and through taking place over just a few years, outshining most other lives by comparison and ending so tragically, it can stand pretty tall amongst most of them.
BELOW: I bet this scene gets better the older I get
Like what you read? Support the site on Patreon
Please report any spelling, grammar, or factual errors or corrections on the contact page
© Jonathan Cvack and Yellow Barrel, 2015 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Jon Cvack and Yellow Barrel with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.