Romanticizing the wild and our place in it

This emotional film chronicles the last two years of Chris McCandless’s life.

Stephanie Dickrell

The story of Chris McCandless does not have a happy ending. His body was found in the Alaskan wilderness, decomposing. He died of starvation, probably brought on by eating the wrong kind of seeds, effectively poisoning himself. When he was found, he weighed just 67 pounds.

“Into the Wild”

Directed by: Sean Penn
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Catherine Keener, Jena Malone
Rated: R
Playing at: Uptown Theater

The film “Into the Wild” chronicles McCandless’s journey, answering the questions that the public has been asking since the 24-year-old’s body was found in 1991.

The film is based on the nonfiction book “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer, based on the true story of Chris McCandless. The film is written and directed by Sean Penn, who spent over ten years attempting to make this movie.

In 1990, after graduating from Emory University, Chris, played by relative newcomer Emile Hirsch, donated his savings to charity and took off on the road, without a word to anyone.

The film follows Chris on his journey, interweaving events from the two years he traveled the country with his last four months, spent in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, which eventually resulted in his death.

Voice-overs by Jena Malone, playing Chris’s sister, provide insight into Chris’s mind and motivations. We get little of that from Chris through his conversations with those he meets along the way. But left to his quiet devices, Chris would remain an enigma.

The most moving parts of the film are the human relationships, and the glimpses that we get of the broken in our society, though not in the way one would expect.

Hollywood stars pepper the film, including Vince Vaughn as a farmer and Catherine Keener as a wandering hippie. Jena Malone, as his sister, grapples with her understanding of her brother’s motivations and the fact that he abandoned her with their two dysfunctional parents, played by Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt.

Hal Holbrook plays a lonely old man, Ron Franz, whom Chris befriends, and whose parting provides one of the most moving scenes of the film. Ron wakes in the middle of the night to Chris preparing to leave for Alaska and offers to drive Chris at least as far as he can get before 8 a.m. church. Ron pulls off the highway, and quietly asks Chris if, after his Alaskan adventure, Ron can adopt him, as a grandson of sorts. The love of this broken man is set against the backdrop of Chris’ impending death, which by this time, the audience knows is coming.

Chris’s determination comes off as cold and stupid at this point, when Chris’s desire to be free comes at the expense of those around him.

Maybe it is Chris’s selfishness that the audience cannot understand. The film is full of those around Chris struggling with Chris’s decisions.

The powerful soundtrack includes any song written about life on the road, as well as folksy music with various emotions attached to it, the happy, the sad, the ominous.

The soundtrack emphasizes the beauty of the sweeping scenes of mountains, beaches and forests, nature as is, perfect and untouched.

It is in this beauty Chris is lost.

The film doesn’t end with his family crying or the discovery of his body by a hunting party a few weeks after his death.

It ends with Chris. Alone.

Penn can rightly be accused of romanticizing Chris’s death and the way it came about. The pure emotion evoked from the movie leaves you wrapped in a tangled web of sadness and pity, but removed from the Alaskan mountains and the folksy music, it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.

We don’t see the reactions of Chris’s parents or sister, or the girl he left in California, or the hippie couple, the old man, or the farmer. It’s as if Chris’s death is taken out of context from the rest of the world, perhaps exactly how Chris would have wanted it, but selfish in the fact that none of us, no matter how hard we push, can exist without human relationships or connections.

Because this film is based on a true story, the romanticizing is particularly troubling. It ignores the true pain of Chris’s death.

At the same time, the film does explore just exactly why Chris felt the need to do what he did.

We can almost begin to understand and sympathize with Chris, in his quest to get away from a civilization that, as he sees it, is anything but civil.