Into the Wild, a film directed by Sean Penn, is based on a true story that happened in the early 90’s. The main character, Christopher McCandless is a post-modern individual, who decides to leave his life behind and goes searching for freedom and meaning beyond materialistic world. During his time on the road he’s trying to find his purpose in life, but more importantly – he’s trying to realize how to live and be happy in a world full of possibilities, which are suffocating him on various levels, instead of being liberating.
The film is presented in a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth between McCandless’s time spent in Alaskan wilderness and his two-year travels that were leading to his journey to Alaska. Through the film we hear his sister as a narrator. Especially when we see flashbacks into their childhood, we can hear his sister’s voice-over. She’s leading us through their lives, so we can get to know their situation at home, their mother and father, and we can also get to know Chris – we can get a better picture of what he’s thinking and why he’s leaving his (on the first sight) perfect family and life behind to go live in the wilderness.
Film begins with his arrival in Alaska, where he sets up a campsite in an abandoned bus (which he calls The Magic Bus). He’s content with the isolation, the beauty of nature around him, and the thrill of living off the land. »No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.«
Film narrative then jumps back for two years, to the time when Christopher graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. We witness his graduation, and their family dinner afterwards, where they’re trying to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event. But the family seems to not get along. While his parents seem concern with their image in front of their friends and neighbours, Chris on the other hand, doesn’t seem to share their materialistic nature and doesn’t want anything that he doesn’t necessarily need. So when they tell him that they want to buy him a new car as a gift for his graduation, his reaction is pretty unusual (at least for an average twenty-two year old): »Why would I want a new car? This one runs great. Do you think I want some fancy boat? Are your worried what the neighbours might think? I don’t need a new car. I don’t want a new car. I don’t want anyTHING. These things, things, things, things…«.
This is the first sign that he’s unhappy in a society that gives so much importance and meaning to consumerism; where people measure their happiness, their success with things that they can buy, with things that they possess. It’s pretty clear that he resents his parents for their materialistic nature, and also that they don’t really know their son, that they have no idea what he wants and needs, of the way he thinks.
Shortly afterwards, Chris rejects his conventional life by destroying all of his credit cards and identification documents. He donates nearly all of his savings to Oxfam and sets out on a cross-country drive in his car to experience life in the wilderness.
While on the road, he gets to know various people. Although most people find him strange, they also relate with him, each of them in a different way. What’s interesting about Chris is how he responds to people’s questions about his life choices with quotes from the books (for example: »Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth.«). These quotes tell us a great deal about him. During the film we get to know that shortly after finishing high school, Chris found out that their dad was married before and that they have a half-brother from his previous marriage. »Their fraudulent marriage and our father’s denial of this other son was, for Chris, a murder of every day’s truth. He felt his whole life turn, like a river suddenly reversing the direction of its flow, suddenly running uphill. These revelations struck at the core of Chris’s sense of identity. They made his entire childhood seem like fiction.« With this knowledge, we can suddenly understand the quote above. It also becomes clear that, even though his escape from the society was in many ways inspirational, his main reason was in fact very individualistic. His reason was not so much running away from corrupted society as it was running away from his family that hurt him with lies and shattered his whole life, his identity.
His pursuit of freedom ends tragically, shortly after he finally reaches Alaska. But even though he tried to exclude himself from society, he realizes, shortly after arriving to Alaska, the importance of human contact, manifested in one of the most powerful phrases of the entire movie: happiness is real only when shared. Film thus ends with a message that complete freedom and individualism is not a way to live and that people still need society to be happy. But by the time he decides to return back home, it’s already too late – he is forced to die alone in the middle of Alaskan wilderness that was once his paradise and at the end his prison.
Directed by: Sean Penn
Written by: Sean Penn (based on the book by Jon Krakauer)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian H. Dieker, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Running Time: 148 minutes