For centuries, literary figures including Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Mark, Twain Jack London, and countless others have written about the importance of nature and the importance of living off the land. In turn, many people have taken these written works to heart and set off on their own journeys in search of a new way of life, in search of themselves.
With Into the Wild writer/director Sean Penn tells the poignant, if troubling, story of Christopher Johnson McCandless. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a young man from Virginia who became so disenchanted by a life of material things and the rules of everyday society that he left it all behind to become a vagabond, in search of answers to questions that seemed to torment his soul.
The film, based on the 1996 bestseller by journalist Jon Krakauer, tells a heroic, wistful tale of a young man fresh out of college who sent his life savings to OXFAM, cut off all communications with his family, swore off most material possessions, and burnt all his money before setting off on a cross country trip to live in the wilds of Alaska. McCandless used the alias 'Alexander Supertramp' as he crossed the country, darting in and out of people's lives, never staying long enough to get too attached; never losing sight of his goal of getting to Alaska. Though McCandless finally reached his destination, he never returned, dying on an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness near the Denali National Park.
Some will see McCandless' story as a truly brave undertaking that came to an end only because of unforeseen circumstances. Others may see his story as one of a fairly well-to-do-kid who was really unconsciously attempting suicide rather than dealing with his myriad of issues. Given the beautiful and poetic way Penn shot Into the Wild, it is pretty clear he stands in the former camp. The literary works of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London were the basis for some of Christopher McCandless' philosophies. Thoreau wrote about simple living, natural surroundings, and civil disobedience. However, after a trip to Maine in the mid-1840s, Thoreau said he felt a greater respect for civilization and realized the necessity of balance. Chris had written, "Jack London is King" inside the abandoned bus where he lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but truth be told, London only traveled briefly to Alaska and preferred to spend his days at his spacious California ranch, writing and drinking.
What Penn fails to realize is that no matter how you slice it, McCandless was ill prepared to go into the bush and truly survive. He had few, if any, hunting skills, his wardrobe was not suitable for harsh Alaskan winters, and he didn't even take a map. I make it a policy not to speak ill of the dead, but I don't think you would be accused of living any less off the land if you took a simple map or compass with you.
McCandless was clearly angry at his parents for the lies they told regarding their marriage. Chris refused to talk to his parents regarding the deception he felt when he found out that his father had another son with his first wife two years after he was born. While this situation had to be incredibly difficult, it's a bit odd that he would then follow as gospel the words of Tolstoy, who advocated celibacy but fathered at least thirteen children. While Penn has chosen to spend the bulk of Into the Wild painting Christopher McCandless into a heroic figure, there is clearly a more complex side of the young man that Penn has barely allowed to surface.