Like many young men cursed with a privileged life of education and time to think for themselves, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) wanted only a vaguely defined “truth” and to not have to rely on anyone. Synthesizing his reading of Henry Thoreau and Jack London, he imagined for himself a life of self-sufficiency in the wilderness. So McCandless dropped out of society in the summer of 1990, leaving behind all connections whatsoever, including his legal name and identity. Despite his absolutely clean break, he never seemed to view this transformation as permanent; he mentions more than once that he may write a book when he “comes back.”
Interestingly for a young man, he also seems to make a point of avoiding even temporary female companionship. He rejects the friendship of Jan (Katherine Keener), and abandons his younger sister Carine (Jena Malone), the person with whom he apparently had the closest bond. Carine narrates the film, with total sympathy for his beliefs and actions. But even she points out that he acted with “characteristic immoderation.”
McCandless died alone in August 1992. He remains a controversial figure (should his asceticism be admired, or was he a fool?), and his solitary death the subject of an intriguing mystery (was he really trapped with food poisoning, or did he allow himself to die slowly as a form of passive suicide?). This film interpretation of his story does make it clear that he was a privileged kid who hadn’t truly suffered. While drinking with new buddy Wayne (Vince Vaughn), he lets slip his adolescent belief that one of the worst forms of tyranny in the world is “parents.” As we see, his parents (Marcia Gay Harden and William Hurt) are all too human and not half as monstrous as he imagines. So perhaps his adventure was more than an idealistic reaction to mere money, society, and materialism. He was also running away from the “free” things that living in society affords, what everyone craves in life: family, friends, and lovers.
A note on the music: just as McCandless looks backwards for literary inspiration, he also has antiquated taste in music for a kid living in the early 90s. His new name for himself, “Supertramp” puns on the classic rock band and his new lifestyle. He christens his new and final home, an abandoned bus, after The Who’s “Magic Bus.” For the music of the film itself, director Sean Penn drew upon two musicians that made names for themselves in the early 90s: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder (who contributed songs to Dead Man Walking), and guitarist/composer Michael Brook. Vedder’s songs for the film were released as an album, but Brook’s excellent score is also available digitally.
Into the Wild is yet another in a long series of films I’ve seen recently that are based on books I haven’t read (The Kite Runner, No Country for Old Men, The Namesake, The Assassination of Jesse James, etc.). But even so, I believe I can detect a few remnants of the film’s prose origins as John Krakauer’s book:
- the film is broken into chapters with onscreen titles
- voiceover narration
- the visual device of superimposed text from McCandless’ own journals provides a second voice
- episodic feel – but that’s justified by the events/phases of his journey – he keeps making clean breaks every time he comes close to settling in somewhere
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