If I could write the story of my life, it would be something akin to Into the Wild. The real life story of Chris McCandles (portrayed by Emiel Hirsch in the film) captures the spirit of a 21st century easy rider, one who decides to cast aside the norms, conventions and rules of society around him and strike off into the wild. Stripping himself from all the clutter of his life, he begins to get away from so much of the noise of life and find something meaningful.
And, for many, he’s left behind a lot. He’s on his way to the finest school, has a hefty amount of money saved and everything seems to be looking up for him. The only problem is that he feels stifled, shut in, closed off at every turn. His overbearing parents and the restricting social norms restrain him, hold him back from something. He doesn’t know what that something is, but he knows it has far more value than his own easy little life and he strikes off with only the bare necessities.
The mastery of the film is that it presents no one reason for Chris’ journey. The surface reason that so many seem to believe is that it’s an act of rebellion to get away from his controlling parents. Yet there’s also this idea of freedom, real freedom from any kind of attachment to any earthly thing, nothing him holding him to the ground. But even beyond that, there’s this basic sense of adventure, of exploration that’s at the core of human nature and leads Chris to constantly move around and meet new people.
In a day and age of rampant consumerism, identity often becomes wrapped up in things. For many it’s appearances, the clothes, makeup, plastic surgery and liposuction. It’s certainly something Mr. and Mrs. McCandless adhere to as they are concerned that the rackety old car their son drives will give him a bad image. For Chris, the frustration lies in the fact that he lives among so many that judge by appearances and affluence instead of character and virtue.
Watching this film, it’s impossible not to draw parallels to Terrence Malick. Sean Penn adapted some of Malick’s style, likely influenced by his collaboration with Malick on The Thin Red Line. At its core, the film is about man’s relationship to nature. As Chris McCandless holes up in an abandoned bus in the middle of nowhere and takes in the beautiful vista, lingering on the majesty, it’s clear that Malick’s lingering style has rubbed off on Penn.
And much like Malick’s work, it’s a visually striking film with plenty of magic hour shots and figures silhouetted by light or shot in the flickering of a campfire. It’s another one of those great cinematic works where almost every shot could be a postcard or a frame you’d hang over the fireplace. There’s so much majesty, beauty and craftsmanship captured throughout the film, a fantastic look at a world that seems so foreign and yet is so very near to so many Americans.
But as the film progresses, the story matures and the drama rises yes, there’s a beauty to Chris’ journey, there’s a liberation but at what cost? Beyond the physical and mental health issues that might arise what does Chris give up in order to live wild? For many it’s clearly a promising life of success and affluence but there’s something even more basic than that, simpler and more profound, expressed with great grace and deep tragedy.
It was inevitable that I would love this film. It captures so much of what I love about film. From the beautiful landscapes to the off kilter sensibilities, it’s a film crafted for the nature cinema lover. And I must also say that I see a lot of myself in Chris and completely understand where he is coming from. While I’m not likely to ever go to the extreme Chris does, I appreciate that whenever I feel that need to just get away from it all, I can start up Into the Wild and take that adventure again.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing