To some, the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, the 24-year-old Emory University graduate who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness in the spring of 1992, will never be anything more than a case of a spoiled bourgeois brat with half-cocked survivalist fantasies (and possible suicidal tendencies) who ran away from home and got exactly what he deserved.
To others, McCandless stirs up thoughts of the intrepid explorers who once ventured forth into undiscovered lands, and of the wanderlust, the rage against the societal machine, and the thirst for what the author Jon Krakauer has termed “raw, transcendent experience.” So what if all the earthly frontiers—the physical ones, anyway—appear to have been conquered?
At the time of its 1996 publication, Krakauer’s book about McCandless, Into the Wild, sparked a predictable array of love-it-or-hate-it reactions. It is to the credit of Sean Penn that his film version will provoke no less animated a debate about its subject, and about its very existence as a movie—which can be construed as a further cashing-in on the McCandless family’s tragedy, or as the ideal vessel for a story about one man’s communion with the last remaining wide-open spaces of the American West.
To these eyes, Into the Wild is an unusually soulful and poetic movie that crystallizes McCandless in all his glittering enigma, and allows us to decide for ourselves whether he was the spiritual son of Thoreau, Tolstoy, and John Muir, or the boy most likely to become Theodore Kaczynski.
Like Krakauer, Penn has conceived McCandless’s story in road-movie terms—a new-millennium Easy Rider that opens with McCandless (played by Emile Hirsch) embarking on the Alaskan pilgrimage that was to have been the final leg of a two-year transcontinental adventure.
Then the filmloops back to McCandless’s college graduation and his attempt to pacify his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) by promising to apply to Harvard Law. But no sooner does McCandless toss his mortarboard hat into the air than he sets about the symbolic desecration of credit cards and ID, the donation of his entire life savings to Oxfam, and the severing of all ties with family and friends.
In between those bookends, Into the Wild takes to the highways and back roads of places named Niland, Carthage, Slab City, and Oh My God Hotsprings, capturing a vivid panorama of burnouts, dropouts, and other self-proclaimed “tramps” who have gone in search of something more—or less—than mainstream society can afford them.
As I write that, I realize it risks making Into the Wild sound like two and a half hours of hippie-dippy philosophizing courtesy of one of conservative America’s favorite Hollywood-liberal punching bags. But Penn’s film burns with native intelligence, never tipping too far into hagiography, and always doing what very few purveyors of McCandless’s story have been able or willing to do: engaging with him on his own terms.