Call of the Wild

Into the Wild is one of the best films I have seen in my entire life.

There you go – high praise with no hyperbole. I’m laying it all out there. The truth is, as a movie fan, I try to see a lot of flicks (more so of late now that I’ve reignited the passion though frequent flyer miles on my Netflix subscription). And, as I’m passionate about films, I do my homework ahead of time through the various entertainment sites and publications I’ll peruse on a weekly basis. Sure, I love me some sports but I’d rather sit down and watch a game versus read all about it. So, when I carve some time to catch up on periodicals, I’ve often got my nose in Entertainment Weekly or my eyes glued to Variety.com, Ain’t It Cool News, IGN Film Force, RogerEbert.com or half-a-dozen other sites devoted to spreading the word on upcoming films, reviewing the current crop or discussing past greats. Meaning, I’ll often come across titles that don’t normally grab prime marquee real estate. And, I’m able to spy enough warning signs to avoid some of the real dogs that lay in ambush ahead.

None of that has anything to do with this film but it should lay the groundwork for my boast. When I offer up “one of the best films I have seen in my entire life”, I don’t make that decision lightly. I’m also not cut from the same critical cloth as other, more esteemed film fanatics, meaning my list of faves can play sort of fast and loose with titles the real critical community would dub “The Great Ones”.

You guys have read the My Favorite Things pieces and know that I prefer to segment films when coming up with my faves – hence Big Trouble in Little China gets to enjoy it’s own perch in the Guilty Pleasures category while Jaws slices above the surface on several other lists. If you love movies, then you love all-kinds of movies. And everything you love in life is worth celebrating. It’s worth bending a stranger’s ear and imploring them to give They Live a shot. They may come back to you and question your taste and sound judgment (“A sci-fi parable starring Rowdy Roddy Piper – are you nuts?”) but every once in awhile you’ll light a kindred spirit

So, if questioned for my favorite movie, I can’t give you one but I can provide a Top 10 list from which you can select whatever looks tastiest to you. My list is as follows (in no particular order): The Shawshank Redemption, The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rudy, Jaws, Dark City, Into the Wild, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Miller’s Crossing and Terminator 2.

For any film to crack my own personal Top Ten, it’s really a big deal. It’s also one of those things where the list is made for the intangible. You can’t define why they are on the list. They just are. You can’t explain why one film made the list over another. It just did. These are the films that meld with your DNA upon first blush and you find that you can never shake them. That no matter how many times you catch them running on TV, you’ll settle down for a spell. Your list of favorite films could best be described as comfort food. They always take you to a good place.

Shawshank was the last flick to instantly make the list. If I found myself at Gitmo, I’d probably cough this one up as the true heir to the throne. I’m proud to say I saw it in the theaters, opening weekend, when no one else would show. I was one of the few who knew this was going to be something special. The rest of you fresh fish who caught it years later on TNT are nothing but a bunch of poseurs.

Shawshank was released in 1993. It’s taken 15 years and who knows how many films for another one to instantly make the leap. That’s why I say with no reservations, that Into the Wild is among great company.

And here comes the plea. See this film. After all, what’s the point of revealing your favorites if you are not going to try to get everyone you know to share in your find. Shout it to the rafters. THIS IS A GREAT FILM!!! A GREAT STORY!!!

This is also a true story.

That said, I need to warn you in advance. If you don’t know the details behind Christopher McCandless’ expedition to Alaska, then you need to stop reading this now. Head over to Netflix, pop the film in your queue, wait a day or two, watch it and return. This post will still be here. I’m going to avoid dispensing too many spoilers (I don’t intend for this to be a film review or deconstruction) but there are certain elements of Chris’s tale that I have to tread upon in order to expose my thoughts properly. Like I said, I’m not reviewing this in this piece but I did want to let you all know why it touched me.

Good, now that they’re gone, we can continue.

Going into this film, I knew all about Chris’s tragic end. It was what led to that derelict bus in the Alaskan wilderness that eluded me. These were the details that required definition.

For those that don’t know the tale and have also not sought my prescribed exit strategy, remaining here to see how the rest of my piece turns out, I’ll give you the primer. In the early 90’s, Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University. He was a good student from a well-to-do family with Harvard Law in his sites. But Chris shouldered the burden of a malnourished family unit (what they had in money, they seemingly lacked in love) and he made a decision to donate his savings to charity, cut all ties at home and head west towards Alaska where he would metaphorically follow in the footsteps of Thoreau and return to nature.

McCandless eventually made it to Alaska and journeyed a fair distance into the wild before setting up camp at an abandoned Alaska Transit Bus. The only sign of civilization for hundreds of miles. There he began to live off the land – reaching his dream of divorcing himself from modern society. And it is there that he died soon after.

When his body was discovered by hunters two weeks after his passing, journalist Jon Krakauer picked up the trail and began back-tracking from the bus to Chris’s beginnings in an effort to learn how far he had come and what he was running from/towards. Krakauer published a piece in Outside Magazine in January 1993 which he later expanded into the best-selling book, Into the Wild. Sean Penn optioned the story but waited almost a full decade before the McCandless family was comfortable enough to give their blessing to its retelling.

I found that watching the movie while knowing what was to come revealed the real genius of Penn’s film. The knowledge of what’s to come lends an eerie pall to the proceedings. Throughout the film, I became enchanted by McCandless to the point that like that other underdog, Rudy, I was rooting for him to win. The whole film really feels like an escalating series of small victories and even though we know that in the end, he loses, we can’t help but pull for him to emerge victorious.

Penn’s retelling really struck a chord with me. I think like the other films on my Top 10 list, this one came around at just the right time. Where 10 years ago, I may have dismissed McCandless as just another disenfranchised spoiled rich kid shirking responsibility and eating his just desserts, I’ve gained deeper perspective. 10 years and 2 kids will do that to you. The dreamer in me marvels at McCandless’ determination to follow through on his dream. There are several stops on his journey where compelling reasons are laid out for him to quit and turn back or start a new life. His union with Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) neatly offers up everything McCandless thought was missing in his life but at that point, he’s too far gone. We hit their intersection late in the film and its heartbreaking stuff – laying the foundation for the despair to follow.

But as much as I pushed for McCandless to improbably change his destiny, the parent in me shudders to think that the sins of the fathers, no matter how small they may seem, can leave damaging scars. It’s fairly apparent that McCandless’ psyche was worn down by a perfect storm of persuasive elements. A college-aged kid, his head full of ideals about how the world should be run, desperate to escape the suffocating grasp of his parent’s materialistic marriage – one almost devoid of love – and his head deep in books and buying into every word transcribed is set free to chase his fantasy. It’s easy to look at that from a distance and suggest that perhaps he had what was coming to him. Going out into the woods, without a map, compass or real plan for how to live off the wild seems suicidal. And maybe that was the intent.

But I couldn’t help reflecting back to parental responsibility. To how deep scars can form and later inform these grown children. It made me take pause and examine my own station in life. I’d like to think I’m a good Dad but I can grow impatient too. I can let the stress of the day manifest itself. And while I try to keep my emotions in check, there have been times where I’ve let my temper flare. And I rue those days. I’m better than that, I hope.

McCandless’ tale is, for me, a cautionary one. We lack the foresight to see the paths ahead of our children, the obstacles and dangers that they’ll one day encounter. We also can’t predict when they’ll go astray and leap off the trail – chasing a dream or running from a nightmare.

The one comfort we can offer is our love. Our devotion. Our support. And our genuine interest in their lives and welfare.

Watching Into the Wild, and getting a glimpse into the interesting dynamic that existed between Dad (played by William Hurt) and son, it can send the mind racing. His Dad obviously loved him and was immensely proud of him but he lacked the perspective that Chris owned. He didn’t see that while he provided for the family and showed Chris that he loved him through the pride in his accomplishments, he was also withering Chris to the core through his stern expectations, mannered approach to relationships and bursts of cruelty.

That said, I think Chris McCandless wins in the end, even if his victory is bittersweet. Essentially, his tale is haunting and heartbreaking – a vibrant flame extinguished all too quickly. However, his adventure was what life is all about. In a very short time, less than two years, Chris experienced that proverbial adventure of a lifetime. And I think he found some peace in that.

He also uncovers the meaning of life.

“Happiness only real when shared.”

That’s a revelation plucked from his journal – the document that sent Krakauer off on his own expedition. It’s a truth that McCandless arrived at a moment too late. And the real Catch-22 is that the message was broadcast loud and clear all along his journey but he needed to get to Alaska, to shut out the world and travel deep inside himself, before he could really hear it. And by the time that became his mantra, it was too late. No going back.

This film is a true collaboration. First off, Sean Penn. Here’s a guy who gets beat up a bit in the press for his “passion”. Well, this film was truly a labor of love and it shows. I think we need more of that passion. I like to think that Penn shares my perspective on McCandless. He really admires what he did and marvels at the journey he took but feels that in the end, while it may have been an inevitability, it didn’t need to end this way. Penn’s script and direction are flawless. He also did a great job in casting the assorted characters that McCandless met along the way, with great work turned in by Vince Vaughn, Catherine Keener and especially Hal Holbrook, whose heartbreak breaks ours near the end.

Penn also reunites with Eddie Vedder who provided a couple of key songs to Dead Man Walking. In this film, Vedder’s voice acts as an unofficial narrator as he warbles a number of soulful solos which punctuate each major stop on McCandless’ journey. I’ve spoken with a number of fellow Pearl Jam fans who have said they bought Vedder’s solo album last year and were left disappointed by the brevity of it – it clocks in around 30 minutes. This is one of those situations where the marriage of sound and light works perfectly – Vedder’s songs in concert with the visuals meld and really work to strengthen the piece.

How did I know this was one of my favorite films of all time? For one, I shed tears at the end. And then when I woke the next day and went through the normal Monday morning routine, I found my mind drifting back to it, and I choked them back again. And then the same thing happened on the way to work. And as I write this, once again.

I shed those tears for McCandless. For a life less ordinary, extinguished far too soon. For a son who never really felt he knew his father. And for a father who never really knew how to bond with his son. For each one of those people that he encountered along the way, who grew enchanted by his blinding life and did everything in their power to keep his light in their lives – and who all came away empty. For that solitary bus, planted in a desolate snowfield in cold, cruel and absolutely beautiful Alaska. A bus that ultimately ferried one lost soul to his final destination.

This is a haunting, lyrical film. It filled me with such joy, raised me up to such lofty heights, all the while I knew the big drop was coming. And the more I learned a little about Chris McCandless, the more I wished I could step back through time and steady his soul.

Even though I know, it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Comments now closed (7)

  • I watched this movie last spring, after having read the book first (which I highly recommend). It is indeed an excellent film.

    And you shouldn’t neglect to mention Emile Hirsch. He manages to capture McCandless’s youthful arrogance while displaying the charm the real McCandless clearly had. I thought he did some great work.

    I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending of the film, for reasons I won’t get into (nothing to do with plot, obviously–more presentation). But it’s definitely one of the finest films of the last few years.

    Have you bought the soundtrack? I downloaded “Hard Sun” (which is actually a cover) off Itunes, but I haven’t bit the bullet and got the entire album yet.

  • @Poe – Agreed on Hirsch. He was amazing in this film. That I caught this a month after seeing him as Speed Racer just confirms that he is one of those actors to watch. I have a new Netflix Notes coming up next week where I talk some more about ths film and pay him tons of respect there.

    As for the ending, just curious. Did you have concerns with that montage of ‘revelations’ that Penn applied to McCandless’ final thoughts? (in other words – how could he know?) Or is it something different?

    I’m definitely planning on reading the book as well.

    I have not bought the soundtrack. Prior to seeing the movie, I had a bunch of people tell me they were disappointed with the album. Again, it was more of a brevity complaint. I think the way Vedder’s voice merges with the visuals – they really compliment each other nicely.

  • I had read the original article, then read the book, then saw the movie ( albeit on pay-per-view). The movie brought the spirit of Chris alive in a manner that the book could not.The book is written so that you know what Chris did, where Chris went, who Chris met, what he thought at the time he had written it down, all gleaned from interviews and written messages, but I still felt a little disconnected. The movie filled in the human blanks. Knowing how the story ends is one thing, but the movie really allowed for how it unfolds. I was a tiny bit put off by how it ended, Krakauer’s analysis in the book that is put forth in the movie, but maybe Chris’ family wanted to believe that he died by accident rather than failed in his adventure.

  • It wasn’t the montage so much as the final shot of the film.

    One thing you get in the book is Krakauer doesn’t sentimentalize the emotional damage McCandless leaves behind. Most people he meets come to love him and then he leaves them, and they’re all devastated when they find out what happened to him. And then there’s the part where the parents visit the bus…

    I don’t know, I just felt there was a vague triumphalism to that final shot, as it pans out, that didn’t jibe with what had just happened. It wasn’t so much how it was written as how it was shot (plus “Hard Sun” coming in at that moment).

  • He’s just a guy from my past (High School Days) who used to work with me at Peterson’s Card & Gift. Anyway, he called out my listing this flick as one of the Top 10 faves as being akin to the time I said Red Sox player Carlos Quintana (gotta’ go back to the late 80’s for that one) should be in the Hall of Fame. I don’t remember saying it but I said a lot of dumb things in my day – so I’m sure I did.

    That said – I may be embellishing a bit in this piece but not by much. I found the film to be truly haunting and sad.

    Also, I see exactly what you are saying about the last shot.

    I’ll tell ya’ – the part that gets me is the “Happiness” quote.