Into the Wild is one of the few films I’ve reviewed for this series that has risen significantly in my estimation upon revisiting it a decade after its initial release. It’s always easier for a sentimental favorite to lose its luster than for a critic to admit he missed the mark the first time around. Maybe it was easier to reassess Into the Wild because I didn’t publish my initial thoughts about the film in 2007.
Maybe, but I’d like to think there is more to it than professional pride. Into the Wild’s themes are problematic and its representation of them a bit (but only a bit) cautious; there’s a seeming ambivalence about its protagonist and his journey that initially struck me as non-commital but in retrospect feels appropriate.
That subject is Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a college graduate who eschews Harvard Law school, donates his scholarship fund to OxFam, and works his way to Alaska to live off the land. McCandless was an actual person, and his story was told by journalist Jon Krakauer in a book on which Sean Penn’s film is based. The film’s literary roots may explain some of its unconventional qualities. It has a split narrative structure, with Chris’s sister (Jena Malone) providing lots of expository voice overs and psychological explication.
Those who prefer their films to show rather than tell may not like this link to Krakauer’s book. Unlike, say, The End of the Tour, the author himself is not a focal point of the story. But that wasn’t really my initial objection. In comparison to today’s films that lead viewers by the nose, the psychoanalytic character development is not overly patronizing. Chris’s parents fight, his father is portrayed as a practical bigamist, and Chris’s infatuation with living off the land is presented as an antidote to his dad’s use of money to manipulate people. (It’s worth noting in passing that 2007 was on the other side of the Great Recession. After nine years of articles informing us how Millennials may be the first generation in ages to have a lower standard of living than their parents, Chris’s burden of having wealth thrust upon him may not seem quite as heavy as that of similarly aged viewers whose poverty is less voluntary.)
I do recall feeling in 2007 that Chris might well have been a jerk — or at the very least that he might have had motivations for dropping out of society that reached beyond an expression of transcendental yearning. I thought the film too black and white: brave kid, evil parents. Now I wonder if the film is aware of some of the hurtful effects of Chris’s windmill chasing. Was he driven as much to hurt those he perceived wronged him as much as he was by a desire to save himself from a life he found odious? Today I see the constant reinsertion of the sister as a refusal to elide that pain. Much like Tim Robbins continually circled back to the crime in Dead Man Walking (a film Penn was in and must know well) to make it impossible to fully sympathize with its protagonist, so too does Into the Wild circle back to the abandoned sibling to remind us that Chris’s pain was not singular and his escape from it not clean.
There is a scene late in the film in which Hal Holbrook, playing a man who befriends Chris, offers to adopt him. In so many films the substitution of family of choice for family of birth would provide a measure of healing and fulfillment. But Chris must be a self-sufficient loner or die trying. It’s not just that he rejects the man’s offer; the way he does so is particularly cruel. Or maybe it is just emotionally stunted. Either way, his companion knows both that he will most likely never see Chris again and that his attempts to befriend and teach the young man have had seemingly little impact. Holbrook is riveting in this scene. He earned a well-deserved Oscar nod.
While rewatching Into the Wild, I also found myself thinking about two more recent productions: Wakefield and 13 Reasons Why. The former is about an adult male who drops out of life but lives in the attic of a carriage house and witnesses the devastation his absence causes his family. He realizes that it is impossible to practice emotional cutoff and maintain a healthy emotional differentiation. The latter is about another young person who is disenchanted with life and who gets back at her tormentors by telling her story in such a way as to make them see they are responsible for her suicide. Whether Chris’s unprepared and unequipped sojourn into a deadly place is a passive-aggressive suicide is debatable. What now doesn’t seem debatable — what I missed the first time around — is that the film refuses to beatify Chris in the way I think 13 Reasons beatifies Hannah. We can share a character’s values and aspirations without endorsing the way he pursues them. We can mourn a character’s pain and death without excusing his nascent faults.