Into the Wild," based on the best-selling nonfiction book by Jon Krakauer, is an exceptional film, multilayered, filled with fine performances, while touching on a universal truth that is unrelentingly explored throughout.
The film begins at the end, showing Christopher McCandless being dropped off in a stretch of Alaskan wilderness that is breathtaking in its beauty and clearly unforgiving. We see him shouldering his backpack and rifle as he heads into the wild. Before long he comes upon an abandoned transit bus and discovers that it was once used as shelter and has a stove and mattress and some old utensils. He quickly sets up camp, heartened by his find. The surrounding mountains, the vast stretches of forests and streams are lovely to behold.
What Chris doesn't see through his distorted, rose-colored prism is their lethality. But then "Into the Wild" captures with perfect pitch the power of idealism, sustained by an abstract scaffolding that can seem impenetrable while simultaneously absent life's experience and insight.
It's that harrowing idealism that has led youth, burning with conviction, to make consequential decisions that all too often cannot be called back.
Through a series of backstory vignettes, we see Chris graduating from Emory University, giving away his law school tuition, and getting in his car, and, without so much as a word to his parents, heading west, and beginning what will be a three year road trip. He spends some of his time with a hippie couple who are endlessly on the road, living a familiar counterculture life (now called "off the grid"). Chris finds them to be not only friendly, but kindred spirits who mirror his nascent beliefs that society, the system, having a career, acquiring things, are, in the aggregate, corrupting and can ultimately shrivel the soul and imprison the spirit. Truth and wisdom can only be found in a place apart &
for Chris that place is the wild, uncontaminated by society. That's his destination.
How many young people in the 60's read "Walden Pond" or the "Whole Earth Catalogue" and said, in the parlance of the time, "Far out!" and, along with fellow spiritual travelers, packed up buses and old milk trucks covered with peace symbols and multicolored daisies, wearing beads and garlands of flowers, and set out to live off of the land. "Raise some chickens, goats, and, like, grow your own food, live close to nature, feel the rhythms of life as they're meant to be lived. That's where it's at, man. It's the way." And they did exactly that and called those convocations communes, places filled with his intellectual Doppelgangers, who had shopped at abundant grocery stores and bought their peasant blouses and work shirts at Penny's. Like Chris, there was nothing about any of this that was disingenuous. Shallow, perhaps, ill-conceived, but profoundly sincere. And much of it was based on a literal reading of books such as Tolstoy, Twain (wasn't it Huck who lit out for the territory?), Muir, Thoreau and pop culture tomes such as "The Making of the Counterculture," by Theodore Roszak, and believing profoundly in their utopian dictums.
In one scene in the film, Chris, who now calls himself Alexander Supertramp (having shed his old identity while pursuing a new one), is sitting on top of a knoll with an old army retiree, portrayed wonderfully by Hal Holbrook, who lives alone in a small house in a desert community. Chris says, in all sincerity, that real life isn't found in relationships with others, but out in the wild. He has separated completely from his parents and sister, never calling home, though his family is tormented by his absence and wait daily for word of his whereabouts.
Though the old man knows better &
he suffered an irrevocable loss &
he considers Chris' point of view and his only response is to offer him his unconditional friendship. It's a powerful and important moment in the film. Chris' only response to his generosity is to say that he's going to Alaska, believing that all will be revealed and new purpose and meaning will arrive when he does. It's a seductive fantasy.
In his naivete', in his undistilled youth, he doesn't understand that all he will ever needs to know he has found already. He only has to live his life fully and a great deal will be incrementally revealed. But idealism blinds him and the irony that haunts the film is that he believes he sees with a greater clarity than those he meets along the way. It's only because of the kindness of strangers that he is able to sustain himself on his journey; he is never able to survive by his wits alone.
When he finally comes to understand that great truths are often tested and revealed in the company of others, it's wisdom that comes, tragically, too late.
"Into the Wild" is endlessly rich and powerfully told, and evocative. The cinematography is a wonder. There is much to admire about this film and much to think about afterward.
Into the Wild