What would possess someone to give up everything and live his life alone in the wild?
It’s the thematic question posed in Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man about a wildlife researcher that filmed the habitat of bears in the Alaskan wilderness. And it is the central question here in Into the Wild. Both films slide evenly between portraying the subject as an insane decision by an even crazier person and a loner’s conscience choice for tranquil freedom.
Based on a true story, director Sean Penn attempts to explain why Christopher McCandless did it in 1992.
Anyone who’s been camping before can understand, at least on a basic level, the urge to “get away from it all” sometimes. McCandless just took it to the next step, and in doing so found the life of a vagabond suited him. He didn’t care what society thought. He wanted to escape all the “-isms” that predetermined his life. Materialism, careerism, etc. I don’t blame him.
I can even identify with the helpless, uncertain feeling after graduating with four years of an altogether meaningless college education. Some students realize they have no idea what they want to do with their lives and bury themselves in further schooling in search of that purpose. McCandless had the grades to go to Harvard Law school and follow in his father’s prestigious and successful footsteps, but was more interested in literature and transcendentalist poetry. Instead he shirked his predestined social “responsibility” and went in search of the serenity that Thoreau wrote about at Walden Pond.
Christopher McCandless (played here by a brilliant Emile Hirsch) burned his money and social security card, cut up his I.D. and credit cards, and abandoned his car along with any remaining ties to the “real world.” He even changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, another indication of his plans to reinvent himself and experience everything as a new man.
Along his travels he meets a variety of characters that teach him about life, hard work, hunting, and love. These life lessons shape him as he matures into a man.
The story is told through beautiful postcard-worthy shots and poetic voice overs. And when his sister (Jena Malone) isn’t detailing the search by the family he left behind, the amazing scenery is set to original music by Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder. Penn makes the landscape and the adventure so appealing that you’re tempted to look around at your own life and say, “Screw this, I’m outta here.” The closest I’ve come so far is cutting up my library card.
Out in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness, we see him surviving and we see him living. At times he’s a feral animal, scratching to survive, and others he’s basking in the great outdoors.
In the end the audience admires Christopher McCandless, while feeling sorry for him. No matter how far he treks into the wilderness, it seems, he can’t escape his past.