The Meaning of Life…

Having been a fan of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, I have always wanted to read John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and I want to do so even more now that I have seen Sean Penn’s cinematic adaptation of it. Chris McCandless’ enigmatic existence makes for an epic film full of important questions concerning society, life, love, and relationships. Never in my film-watching have I wanted so badly to connect with a character and never has it been quite so difficult. Here is a music video for “Hard Sun,” one of Eddie Vedder’s many songs composed for the film. Read on for my review of what is truly a captivating film.

Certainly without spoiling anything, Into the Wild is the story of Chris McCandless, a young, new graduate of Emory University. He foregos a promising educational future (Harvard Law School most likely), gives away his life’s savings, destroys any form of personal identification, and sets out west. For over a year, he bums around the northern and western United States, dipping down into Mexico, and works odd jobs to get by and save for his ultimate destination, Alaska…the wild. A little over two years after his disappearance from his family, a group of moose hunters found his body in the Alaskan wilderness. The intervening period is full of life-giving encounters and personal growth on the way to an ultimately tragic ending.

Into the Wild is simply a beautifully directed and photographed film. Penn and his cinematographer, Eric Gautier, capture the natural beauty and diversity of this country and the people who inhabit it. Emile Hirsch gives an Oscar nomination-worthy performance as the wide-eyed, yet wise McCandless. Perhaps one of the film’s strongest points are the people McCandless encounters on his journey. Catherine Keener plays an aging hippie with family problems of her own. Vince Vaughn plays a South Dakota grain farmer who dabbles in some illegal activity. Hal Holbrook plays Ron Franz, an old leather worker and military veteran. Holbrook’s offers a gripping performance to which I will return below. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden give powerful, if understated, performances as Chris’ troubled parents whose dysfunction spurns him on his journey.

Penn concludes the film with an actual photograph that Chris took of himself in Alaska. He stares straight into his own camera, and thus Penn’s, with a knowing grin that makes us question what it is he has learned after all. Of course Penn’s film answers this in a dramatic conclusion, but some questions do remain. Chris comes to the conclusion, in the film, that happiness is only real if shared with others. Throughout his journey, he sees glimpses of this, whether philosophizing with hippies, partying with farmers, or working leather with a veteran. Yet just as these relationships begin to mature, Chris flees. He trades off genuine connection for a search for truth, which he seems to realize, too late, existed in these very relationships all along. When Ron, who is the last of his family, asks Chris if he can adopt him to continue his lineage, Chris shrugs it off and tells him that they can discuss it when he returns from Alaska. Ron is just as aware as we are that he will never see Chris again. Chris’ approaching the precipice of change but inching back defines much of his journey until he reaches Alaska.

Chris’ life and his negative views of society must be questioned. He throws himself into the wild, and it ultimately consumes him. Even Thoreau, whom Chris constantly quotes, new he could not live in solitude. Chris and Roy discuss God and the necessity of forgiveness. Theirs is not a particularly deep theological discussion; however, we could draw a theological point from hit. Perhaps we are created for community, just as God exists in community with God’s self. What is the human story if not divine attempts to create community and humanity’s attempts to deny or destroy it? The hippie commune in southern California is even too societal for Chris, and he flees. Chris’ trip to Salvation Mountain near the hippie camp is one of the special moments in the film, but he again misses the point. Chris has immersed himself in the study of humanity’s darkest deeds which blind him to their brightest moments that life before him. He vehemently attacks the idea of society and its corruptions and lies; however, he does not seem to realize that, far from escaping society, he is stridently defining himself in his negative relation to it, and is, as such, dependent on it.

Some critics were wary of the film’s length and inability to capture the power Krakauer’s book; however, Penn always manages to draw us back into the story at key moments. The soundtrack, composed by Eddie Vedder, is a nice supplement, if sometimes invasive. Ultimately, Penn seems to reveal the tragedy and potential wastefulness of McCandless’ “experiment” while still respecting his decision to undertake it.

Into the Wild (145 minutes) is in theaters now and is rated R for