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Into the Wild

Released 2007. Director: Sean Penn

CHRISTOPHER McCANDLESS, AGE 20, A GRADUATE OF EMORY UNIVERSITY, donates his life savings of $24,000 to charity, abandons his car and without a word to his family and friends, walks away from everyone in his life headed for oblivion in the wilderness of Alaska.

He calls himself Alexander Supertramp. He sets fire to his last few dollar bills because money doesn’t mean anything to him anymore as he hitchhikes across the country. This is the strength of his resolve to cut loose the material ties of his privileged life.

“If you think that what makes life meaningful is human relationships, you’re wrong.” Chris is convinced that the most important thing in life is his own solitude, dismissing meaningful human interactions as superfluous and a hindrance to his ultimate mission to unshackle himself from society.

Ironically, his life story is a vivid illustration of the opposite. The most meaningful experiences, the most significant moments, the most memorable times are those Chris spends in the company of the kind strangers who befriend him and open their arms and hearts to this idealistic young man on a spiritual quest. These encounters give shape, form and ultimately a sense of meaning to the story of a wanderer.

There’s the middle-aged hippie couple (Brian Dierker and Catherine Keener) who understand the mind of this rebel all too well. There’s the young girl (Kristen Stewart) who falls for him. There’s the farmer (Vince Vaughn) who gives him work. There’s the old man Ron (Hal Holbrook) who feels a connection to Chris and wishes to adopt him as a grandson. They touch each other’s lives even if Chris is reluctant to admit it.

The point is never clearer as the chapter featuring Chris and Ron, the kindly widower in his twilight years, is entitled “Getting of wisdom”. On the contrary, the long days of being by himself are “lonely and sad,” as Chris writes in his journal. As he sinks deeper into his self-imposed exile in the wilderness, Chris’ life becomes increasingly helpless and frustrating as he struggles just to stay alive.

The last section of the movie, as Chris lives out his dream (or has he ever, at any point, considered it a nightmare?) alone in the deep reaches of Alaska, his existence is marked by chronic hunger, danger, sickness and finally, a painful death, which the young man had probably never expected nor envisioned.

This is far removed from any romantic notion of living alone in a cabin, hunting, fishing and growing your own vegetables. It’s actually quite amazing that Chris hasn’t died earlier from being swept away in a raging river or mauled by bears.

The official cause of Chris’ death is ingesting of poisonous plants by mistake. One could argue it’s really the conviction and arrogance of his youth. Not the idealistic pursuit of a perfect existence in the wild, being one with nature and in harmony with his spiritual self, but the overpowering certainty of his own invincibility which translated into a reckless disregard for commonsense and practicality.

The source of Chris’ discontent with life can be traced back to family wounds. His parents (played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) are successful entrepreneurs who give Chris and his sister a comfortable lifestyle. But their son grew up disillusioned; his anger and rebellion towards mum and dad extended to a “sick” society of judgement and control, a future of career, money and obligations. “Career is a 20th century invention,” says Chris. “And I don’t want one.”

Chris aspires to be rid of “things” and “irksome responsibilities”, to be a new person, away from any other human being, living in the wild in ultimate freedom. We see Chris is the Alaskan mountains looking around a breathtaking landscape of snowcapped peaks and wide open wild spaces. An overwhelming moment of majestic natural beauty; and for Chris, he couldn’t be more alone in the world.

Sean Penn directs Into the Wild, which is based on a true story, as a road movie where the hero ventures a step too far and eventually falls off the horizon. A young man whose idealism leads him to a life explored, lived, cut short. He reaches out and grabs life, but loses his grips.

Emile Hirsch’s portrayal of Chris has a charm that comes across as a mix of innocence and honesty. As we see in his interactions with the various people he meets along the way to Alaska, Chris is genuine, kind and considerate. Everybody wants the best for him and wishes him the best to find what he’s looking for and be happy, yet it’s hard to stand by his side and offer full encouragement.

For the guy who said “You are wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from the joy of human relationships,” his story lives on thanks to the notes in his journal recalling the serendipitous, open-hearted, trusting encounters he finds on his way to a personal nirvana.

In the end, this thoughtful film about an uncompromising young man becomes regretful. What Chris hadn’t anticipated was that he would fail to live in peace and harmony with Mother Nature because sometimes she can be real nasty and brutal. Alexander Supertramp left us as a cautionary tale from a disillusioned wanderer.


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