dir: Sean Penn
[img_assist|nid=51|title=I'm even dirtier than I look|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
There are films and books that purport to be about genuine individuals, about iconoclasts, rebels who are unlike everyone around them. Mostly it seems like it is praise for the latest sporting icon or actor/directors getting paid millions to indulge their affectations and the contempt they have for other people, in an easily marketable and digestible package. When the real thing comes along: a person in the modern age completely unwilling to live life like the vast majority of the people around him, we might not know what to make of him.
Into the Wild is based on a book by Jon Krakauer and looks at the life and times of one Christopher Johnson McCandless. The only really notable thing about this chap is that for seemingly no reason, but in reality a whole heap of reasons, he chooses to eschew the luxuries of modern life and travel the lonely road.
Upon graduating from college, McCandless (Emile Hirsch) decides to forego law school, gives his life savings of $24,000 to Oxfam, and hits the road. Yes, he’s romantically inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road, and the books of Jack London, and even Walden. But he doesn’t do this easily or in a cavalier fashion. He’s not pretending to play hobo: he abandons his life and any conception of making a go of the ‘regular’ life considered appropriate in modern America.
These events transpire in the early 90s, so it’s not like it was a long time ago, though you may be surprised at the amount of hippies and travellers whose paths he crosses on the way to his ultimate destination: Alaska. His ultimate ambition is to venture forth into the wilderness, to get as far away from civilisation and other people as possible, and to live. Live deeply.
If you’re the kind of person who is disgusted by these kinds of people, then there’s not going to be much for you to enjoy here. You’re not going to relate to the impulses that compelled him to hit the road and choose to live differently, you’re not going to understand how a person can be smart enough and connected enough to have been able to have what you would consider a meaningful, productive life and yet choose rationally to give it away.
You’re not going to get it, and most importantly, you’re not going to care. McCandless and people like him, to you, are shiftless, lazy layabouts who never did an honest day’s work in their lives and who don’t know the value of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic work ethic. Any person who doesn’t opt for the career, for the family and the mortgage, therefore, is a deviant and a waste of space in your clear eyes.
They’re what’s wrong with America/Australia/Scotland/Afghanistan. It’s them and the immigrants making your life hell, and the reason why your wife left you and took the kids, and why you eat your dinner out of a can whilst sitting in your socks and underwear watching your television at 3am from about a three foot distance.
So, since we’ve established that McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp as he chooses to call himself, is a person whose very being you despise, why in the name of all that is holy would you be interested in a two and a half hour film about his life?
As the film starts, Chris has just made it to Alaska. He stumbles and bumbles his way into the wilderness, leaving behind the painful (for him) reminders of human civilisation and human dishonesty. When he finds a derelict bus in the wilds, he has found the home he’s been look for all his life. The film then backtracks to show us how he came to be here, before it moves forward again.
He seems to be part of a loving family, with uptight parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) and a doting sister (Jena Malone). Malone spends most of the flick narrating the sister’s story, which is really the story of her understanding of what Chris was doing, why he did it, and what impact his absence or presence was having on people’s lives.
When he hits the road it seems to be with the intention of learning how to live the wanderer’s life well enough to be able to brave the cold Alaskan wilderness eventually. Though he yearns to get to Alaska as soon as he is capable, he does not rush to get there. He (or at least the actor playing him) brings such enthusiasm for this life and for life in general that it can’t help but be infectious. It is a lust for life that has nothing to do with a lust for sex or a lust for sensual pleasure or for some kind of achievement outside of reaching some state of contentment measured in proportion with his distance from the accoutrements of the modern world.
Of course he meets characters along the way, and he suffers some setbacks. Though the film is fractured chronologically, the story is told in chapters detailing what McCandless feels were these stages of growth in his new life. The ‘first’ chapter relates to his rebirth upon hitting the road. The others are titled as stages in any person’s life, being adolescence, adulthood and finishing with the getting of wisdom. You might not think there’d be much to say about a hobo’s life, but there is more than enough here to give an idea of why his story still resonates despite his fate.
I say despite because there isn’t anything radically new about his story. The man who consciously rejects society throughout history and across nations has long been considered a madman, a holy man, or both. In other cultures, like India’s perhaps, he might have been considered a yogi, in touch with spirituality and the universe in a way not possible by those weighed down by the world’s desires. The ascetic, the hermit who rejects the world and embraces that Something Bigger is more than just a romantic figure. He exists as that powerful symbol of human capability beyond the mundane, transcending religion and connecting to something deeper, whether it be God or Nature or both, in a way that can either thrill, terrify or bore us.
This is why McCandless is not just some wacky guy who lived feral and got a book written about him. The conscious and fully aware steps he takes along his path are not a recommendation to say “Hey, act just like me.” People like him do these kinds of things so that we don’t have to. We can share in his longing and his joy without having to make the same sacrifices.
Upon his first set of travels, he ends up in Los Angeles after a long and painful journey interrupted by copping a severe beating by someone working for the railroads, which, as any self-respecting hobo will tell you, is the limousine of choice of those who live off the grid. After checking in somewhat at a shelter, he walks down some pretty dodgy parts of LA before stopping, dirty and wounded, in front of a bar. Inside he sees some slick suited yuppie drinking and laughing entertaining another equally vapid yuppie type. There’s a shift, and then he sees himself as the suited, Patrick Bateman-like yuppie, down to the immaculately gelled head.
The horror wells up in him, and he hits the road again.
Of the people he meets along the way, including a nice traveller couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker), a folk-singer teenager (Kristin Stewart), and a lonely old guy (Hal Holbrook), it’s the old guy who breaks your heart. Almost everyone who meets Chris finds him to be some kind of wonder, whose joy in the face of hardship and determination to achieve his dreams inspires them in their own lives, or at least leaves them with some greater contentment with the life they have lived.
In reality, you know a figure like McCandless would have been pretty irritating. It takes a certain amount of self-centeredness, selfishness even to be this kind of person, to cast off not only the shackles of society but of family as well. We are given very good reasons why he would not want to communicate with his parents, but there’s no real reason given for why he cuts off his sister as well, except for the knowledge that by communicating with her he gives relief to them. When he interacts with the old man, who seems to have nothing but paternal love for him, he behaves like something of an idiot by demanding that the old guy abandon his life and the peace he has made with it in order to hit the road like he’s doing. McCandless’s greatest virtue in his enterprise is also his greatest personal failing: he likes other people but has little regard for them.
As entrancing as his journey is, there are times when you want to strangle him, because you’re no longer seeing his determination as disciplined, but more as ignorance and emotional immaturity. When he gets to various places and still sees the signs of civilisation, such as the vapour trails of planes high in the stratosphere, you can’t help but feel that his desire for absolute isolation is ludicrous. I couldn’t help but have a few chuckles at his expense throughout.
There are parts of the flick that don’t work, or that cheapen the film and make it feel a bit amateurish, but overall it’s still a very strong story and a pretty great telling of it. It is infused with this enthusiastic joy that works for most of the long running time and maintains our interest even as we see where the story is inevitably going. The parts devoted to his experiences in the so-called “Magic Bus” are even more compelling than the sequences involving other characters, and the film manages to raise up many of the postcard shots of the Alaskan wilderness, the Grand Canyon, the Salton Sea and Slab City in the Californian desert and anywhere else in fact to make them places of transcendence rather than tourism.
I can’t guess how other people will respond to this story. Before jumping to conclusions, let me assert the fact that I personally have no romantic ideas about hitting the road, camping in the wilderness or roughing it by abandoning the strictures and artifice of contemporary life. I hate camping, and I’m ambivalent about nature versus my clear love of concrete, comfort and a stable internet connection. The level upon which the story appeals to me is that there could still be someone in this day and age who could say “fuck it, none of the many meaningless things that you centre your life around matter to me: I want something else”. The film perfectly captures that feeling and that exuberance, that longing for a purity we seldom find in the day to day.
Emile Hirsch, being a young guy, probably doesn’t have to try too hard to find how to play such a character, but he makes me believe that he embodies this spirit that infused McCandless’s life. He also spends most of the flick looking like that most famous of Canadian mutant superheros, being Wolverine, but makes you forget that and remember something somewhat more powerful and more lasting.
When he gets to where he gets to, sad as it is, it still feels like an achievement, that he did find some contentment that otherwise would have evaded him his entire life had he chosen to live differently or timidly. Thus the ending has equal parts joy and sadness, as should contain the telling of any person’s tale who gets to live the life they wanted to live.
Who the hell are you to begrudge anyone that?
9 lines betwixt holy man and madman that are pretty much nonexistent out of 10
“Happiness is only real when shared”. – Into the Wild.