A solitary pursuit of life’s meaning by oneself is impossible. If there is no greater statement being made about culture in the last two decades it is this: people need community and fellowship. But it is the literary weight of Byron, Thoreau, and London that force an individualistic theme throughout Into the Wild. While there is an honest portrayal of a young man’s deep seeded pain, it is a shame that Christopher McCandless’ unprepared life is honored.
Twenty three years is split into chapters, interspersed with childhood flashbacks, and a detailed account of Christopher’s life in Alaska. Though the film is long (2.5 hours) exceptional direction through pacing is exercised judiciously by Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard, The Pledge). Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is an open wound inflicted by his parents, played graphically by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. McCandless realizes that he is a bastard child. Sick of his parents’ materialistic arrogance, the young college graduate sets out to experience life without money, without connection. Along the way, he meets various characters that laud his pursuits. But it is the singular role played by octogenarian Hal Holbrook who wrenches every viewer’s emotions. A man harboring his own disappointments speaks into this young life, attempting to save McCandless before the ill-fated Alaskan adventure. Holbrook steals the show in the scene where he asks Christopher to be his grandson.
Ron (Holbrook) also utters the most important statement in the movie, even though the film is embedded with literary luminaries: “to forgive is to love.” McCandless’ family disintegration forces him to find normalcy, stability. But it is this great wisdom that prompts the viewer to consider themselves, their own circumstances, their families.
To celebrate a person and a way of life on screen is good. However, to have the audience accept that this young person’s trek would have been possible apart from the physical, fiscal infrastructure readily available all around him, making his odyssey complete is a bit far fetched. Innumerable hitchhiking rides, hotdogs on the river, shelters, and broken laws makes an anti-materialist’s life a bit insincere. To accept Into the Wild as a radical statement against the status quo or American culture ignores the fact that McCandless was not living “off the grid” but on it. Christopher’s pronouncements “I don’t need money; give me truth” and “if you want something in life, reach out and grab it” cannot be taken seriously or sustained.
Yet, the story itself sends important messages to a culture obsessed with material wealth and familial indifference: love others. Too late did McCandless recognize that “happiness must be shared” (seemingly his last journalistic entry). We cannot live alone. People may be by themselves, but they are never apart from others. Individualism in no way satisfies because it is impossible to be self-sufficient and independent on this earth, in this life.
Rated R for profanity, nudity, sexual and adult situations
Dr. Mark Eckel is Dean of Undergraduate Studies at Crossroads Bible College