Into the Wild (2007)

Starring: Emile Hirsch, Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener
Runtime: 2 hours, 28 minutes
Themes: Freedom, Society, Parents, Death
Awards: 2 Oscar Nominations, 1 Golden Globe
Links: IMDb Entry, Rotten Tomatoes

(Please Note: This analysis assumes the reader has already seen the movie and is familiar with the plot. No synopsis is provided. For the best reading experience, it’s recommended to have seen the film recently.)

Introduction

Into the Wild hits home for me in a number of ways. Chris and I had a similar early life. I too was raised by wealthy and successful parents who were completely dysfunctional, materialistic, and obsessed with appearances. Like Chris’s, my parents seemed to only know how to show affection through money and materialism, and although seemingly not as abusive as Chris’s parents, mine often put my brother and I in the center of their problems.

Being a rich kid in an emotionally dysfunctional family is a weird place to come from. On the one hand, you have everything provided for you without any qualms or concern. On the other hand, your life still sucks and you feel like you’re never allowed to complain about it. As a result, disgruntled rich kids like Chris and I often spend years upon years aimlessly angry, at our parents, at the government, at society, at the world.

As a result, we often look for grandiose ways to rebel. To send a clear message to our parents who are too busy with work or trips to Paris to care about us. Chris did it by getting rid of all of his possessions and hitchhiking around the country. I did it by getting rid of most of my possessions, teaching dating online and backpacking around the world. In both cases, our parents were mildly horrified.

I first watched Into the Wild about five years ago and about three years after it came out. I hated it. The film was and is, to this day, one of the few films that causes me to become visibly angry when I watch it. I wanted to punch Chris in the nose. I found him to be petulant, selfish and annoying. For me, the movie touched too close to many of the selfish and obnoxious life choices I had made, and I hated it for it.

Upon watching the movie again the other night, it no longer made me angry. Although I still dislike Chris and find the fact that he’s seen as a hero by so many a little disturbing (more on why below). Instead, I found the film to be an interesting commentary on youth and American idealism, and likely unaware of a lot of the ironies it portrays.

Chris McCandless: Bold Hero or Spoiled Brat?

It’s been 22 years since McCandless died, and in that time, he has somehow developed somewhat of a cult following of would-be adventurers and outdoorsmen. To the chagrin of the Alaskan natives around Denali Park, hundreds of copycats trek out to the burnt out bus where McCandless died each year, mimicking McCandless’ unpreparedness and lack of training. As a result, many must be rescued or airlifted out of the park. Over a dozen have also died trying to reach the same place.

A photo of the real-life Chris McCandless in front of the bus in which he would eventually die.
A photo of the real-life Chris McCandless in front of the bus in which he would eventually die.

It seems McCandless has become something of a martyr for everybody who feels unfairly constrained by society and dreams of the complete and total freedom of living carelessly in a great wilderness. To many, despite all of his flaws, McCandless represents the ideal of throwing away one’s social constraints and unapologetically embarking upon one’s own personal dream.

The film reinforces this message throughout as McCandless seems to be a fountain of cliche self help one-liners. “If you ever want something, reach out and grab it,” he tells one girl he meets. She stares at him in awe and begins to cry. He writes in his journal that, “You can do anything. You can be anything. Power is all in the mind.”

This is the stuff Tony Robbins infomercials are made of.

And it’s these kinds of delusionally positive platitudes that I argue in my new book often lead to a insidious form of narcissism.

Which brings us to why some people (including yours truly) can’t stand Chris McCandless. Because he’s selfish, inconsiderate, narcissistic, and a hypocrite.

Chris’s abundant selfishness can easily fly under-the-radar for viewers of a specific disposition. Indeed, I’ve spoken to a few people who loved the movie the first time they saw it, only to see it a few years later and marvel at how they missed how insufferable Chris is at times.

Chris’s selfishness is hard for some to spot because he is not selfish in the conventional ways. He doesn’t care about money or possessions or sex. He’s not violent. He doesn’t lie to people.

Yet, he oblivious to the repercussions of his actions. There is the obvious: the suffering of his parents and his sister. His parents are shown agonizing throughout the entire movie. And if his sister is to be believed, sure, they’ve been emotionally abusive and fucked up, but there’s no reason to think that disappearing without any explanation or contact is fair to them. His sister, who is supposedly important to him, is also left in the dark. Later in the movie, she even distresses that perhaps he didn’t love her. But her constant reverence and faith in her older brother blinds her to what he really is: just an asshole.

Then there are the people he meets on his travels. The people who take him under their wing are almost always people who have somehow lost someone in their own lives and they see helping/saving Chris as helping/saving that person they couldn’t previously. The hippy couple sees in him the abandoned son Jan left behind. Wayne the farmer sees in Chris a younger and more innocent version of himself. He repeatedly warns Chris to forget about Alaska, to make roots somewhere and take better care of himself. Ron Franz sees in Chris his lost son who tragically died. Chris seems to consciously even take advantage of this and act as a son to Ron for a long time. At least long enough for Ron to suggest to Chris that he’d like to adopt him. Chris then turns him down.

But Chris’s obliviousness to the suffering he inflicts on other extends beyond his would-be personal relationships. Despite constantly ranting about the corrupting powers of society and his desire for complete and utter freedom, he continually leeches off the society around him — illegally riding on trains, taking advantage of homeless shelters, and illegally entering parks and rivers without permits or permission. On top of that, he repeatedly endangers himself as he kayaks rapids, climbs cliff walls, hitchhikes, and swimming with little experience, meaning that if he somehow hurt himself, he’d quickly become a major liability of someone else — i.e., the park rangers, paramedics, helicopter pilots who would brave the elements to come save him. Not to mention how expensive it would be to use governmental equipment to patch up his mistakes.

The Ironies of Chris McCandless

What results is a movie that is one giant irony. I’m not sure if Sean Penn was aware of this irony or not, but it appears not, considering how dramatic McCandless’ death is and how his life seems to be celebrated.

There are two ironies that unfold across the span of the film:

1) It’s stated clearly that what Chris is running from is the destructive narcissism of his parents — particularly his father — and their desire to fabricate a “perfect life” without any regard to the people they may be hurting in the process. It’s even said early on in the movie that Chris’s father’s problem is that in trying to make things perfect in the only way he can understand (materialistic success, status) he inadvertently hurts those close to him.

Chris follows right in his father’s footsteps in this regard. He simply has the opposite (and equally false) vision of what a “perfect life” is. Walt McCandless envisions the perfect life as having a nice house, two kids who went to nice colleges, who got nice jobs, and drive nice cars. Chris’s envisions a life away from society, devoid of materialistic pleasures and indifferent to status. In pursuing both of these visions, both McCandless men come to irrevocably harm the relationships that mean the most to them.

2) Chris’s pursuit of the ultimate freedom is what, in the end, traps him. The unspoken assumption that persists throughout the movie and through all of Chris’s actions is that society is inherently constraining and that true freedom can only exist when one removes oneself from civilization and all of its function.

Emile Hirsch being filmed for a scene in Into the Wild.
Emile Hirsch being filmed for a scene in Into the Wild.

But this naivete ultimately traps Chris and leads to his death. Out in the Alaskan wilderness, Chris finds himself limited in what he’s capable of eating. When he tries to return back to town, he finds himself stuck by his own ignorance of the landscape around him. Park rangers couldn’t come and rescue him because he notified no one of where he was going. Stranded on an abandoned bus, his life became fully determined by the waxing and waning of the nature around him. And nature is a cruel master.

A Fraudulent Hero

The clear giveaway that Chris’s endeavors had nothing to do with nature or freedom but everything to do with himself was not what he did, but what he didn’t do. He was untrained and unprepared for extended living in the wilderness. He was inept at hunting and uneducated about constructing his own shelters. He refused to use a map or compass. He picked the most dangerous time of year to trek out into the Alaskan wilderness. And he failed to notify anybody — including park rangers — of his wearabouts or his plans to return.

Chris McCandless did not respect the wilderness that he professed to love. Had he respected it, been awed by it, and surrendered himself to it, he would have undergone the proper preparation, training and study required to live for extended periods of time out in the wilderness alone.

Think about this for a moment. He lived on an abandoned bus. How did the bus get there? If a bus could get to where he was, why couldn’t he get out?

It turns out that there was a hand-operated tram less than a mile from the river crossing. Had Chris brought a map, he would have easily found it and crossed the river back to civilization.

The film romanticized Chris’s death. As Chris died, he seemed to come to terms with his own existence, setting up a sign outside stating, “I have lived a happy and full life. God Bless You,” and then preparing himself for death.

The truth is far less rosy. That sign existed. But instead it read: “S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured. I am all alone. This is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me.”

Chris likely died an excruciatingly slow and painful death. He starved to death in an environment overflowing with food. He was simply too weak to forage for enough berries, and too incompetent to successfully hunt for food. He killed a moose and then let 1500 pounds of meat spoil. He was walking distance from a river crossing but never knew it. He failed to notify anyone of where he planned to be so they would know where to look for him.

Chris essentially committed suicide. Perhaps it was accidental or borne out of ignorance. But he killed himself. And no matter how admirable a few of his sentiments may have been, ultimately his behavior was selfish, irresponsible, and incompetent. And there is no heroism in that.