Spoiler Warning: This review gives away the ending. If you don't want to know what happens, stop reading now!
Listen to Eddie Vedder's cover of Hard Sun written by Gordon Peterson from the Into The Wild Soundtrack as you read along:
I was profoundly moved by this film telling the true story of Christopher McCandless's journey of self-discovery into the Alaskan wilderness. Directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch as Christopher McCandless, this film hit me hard and I found it hugely cathartic. Despite a packed cinema, it was as though there was just me and this film connected to each other; I cried almost the whole way through.
Part of the reason I connected with it so strongly was that I first saw it while on a journey into the wild of my own: a solo 2,500km motorcycle road-trip of self-discovery from my home town of Sydney to Byron Bay where I saw the film, and beyond. There are also many parallels between Christopher's emotionally disconnected family, and my own. The scenes depicting the ongoing conflict between his parents transported me straight back to my own childhood and the sense of emotional disconnection between Christopher and his father mirrored that between me and my father.
Every character in the film is flawed in some way, and I found myself relating deeply to the pain in each and every one. I was so moved that as soon as I got back to Sydney two weeks later I saw it again, this time in a virtually empty 11am mid-week session at Fox Studios where I could fully immerse myself in it without distractions. I also read the book by Jon Krakauer, borrowed the soundtrack by Eddie Vedder from the library, and even learned to play the main song Hard Sun by Gordon Peterson on my guitar; although I do like Eddie Vedder's version better. I'd never felt so connected to a film before.
So what's it all about? Having completed the obligatory college degree demanded by his overbearing father, Christopher leaves home and takes to the road. His planned destination is the Alaskan wilderness, and on the way he travels across the USA meeting various different people as he prepares for the final leg of his great adventure. Each person he meets is profoundly affected by their interaction with him. It is as if his unspoken pain, which he keeps barely hidden beneath layers of thoughtful philosophy, allows other people to release their own pain and grieve. There's the hippy couple with a missing son of their own, a talented young girl stuck in trailer nowhere, a playful European couple on the Colorada river, a dodgy grain harvester operator and part-time illegal pay-TV installer, and an ex-army veteran whose life has contracted since the death of his wife and only child many years before.
Each of these people form a profound but somewhat one-sided connection with McCandless. He motivates and inspires them to move on in their lives through the pragmatic manner in which he pursues his own adventure. Yet at the same time, he's relatively unaffected emotionally in return. He dismisses questions about his family and whether they know where he is. He doesn't seem to care; in fact, he takes deliberate steps to stop them finding where he is. When veteran Ron asks him tearfully if he can become his adoptive grandfather, Christopher replies “Let's talk about this when I get back from Alaska. Is that OK, Ron?” Clearly it's not. Christopher has been so wounded that he's given up on finding happiness in connection with other people, and now finds greater solace in the wild.
The impact of Christopher's disappearance on his family is enormous. He is either naively unaware or simply indifferent to the suffering that he causes them, perhaps considering it justified by his parents' lies and hypocrisy, and the pain that the conflict in their relationship has caused him. I could relate strongly to his feelings of ambivalence towards his parents. His rejection and unwillingness to forgive them is particularly extreme. Much of the movie is narrated by the voice of his sister with whom he had a close and loving relationship; he had no reason to hurt her, and it's clear that she is devastated by his desertion. While she can understand him not wanting to contact his parents, the fact that he doesn't contact her clearly hurts. As I sensed the pain in her narrative voice, I thought “Gee, I wish I had a sister who loved me like that”. Ironically, I do have a sister; two in fact, and while they would most probably be equally devastated if I were to disappear I can't say that I really feel it because of the emotionally distant way that we all relate to each other.
Christopher pursues his ultimate adventure with naïve recklessness. It leads him into the Alaskan wilderness, where he struggles to find food to feed himself. Hunting turns out to be harder than he expected. When he decides to leave because the winter is over, he finds that the spring thaw has caused the small stream he crossed on the way in to swell into an enormous uncrossable river. He is now trapped in the wild, and has run out of food. The cover of the book makes no secret of the ending to the story, nor did any of the movie reviews; but I'd heard of the film only in passing and hadn't read the reviews before seeing it. So it came as a complete shock to me when I realized that Christopher McCandless wasn't going to make it out of the Alaskan wilderness alive. He'd eaten the poisonous berries that looked similar to the edible ones in his book, and was now too weak to feed himself, or escape. This troubled character who I'd well and truly bonded with, was starving to death. The final scene shows Christopher's dying thoughts of his life flashing before his eyes, interspersed with the famed white light that dead people are supposed to see as their brain shuts down. As the credits rolled, more tears rolled down my face and I was genuinely stunned.
That may have been the end of the movie, but it's not the whole end of the story. The book which inspired the film tells the story of how journalist Jon Krakauer reconstructed Christopher's final epic journey by tracking down and interviewing many of the people he met on the way to Alaska. The final chapter in veteran Ron's story is particularly telling. We know from the film that when his wife and only son were killed by a drunk driver many years before, Ron had turned to alcohol to ease his pain. Eventually he dug his way out of that hole, and the experience of losing his family didn't cause him to lose his faith in God... In fact, he found solace in the church. But the part of the story that the movie doesn't tell is that for several months after Christopher left Ron to head to Alaska, Ron would visit Christopher's old desert camping site in the hope of meeting him again. When news finally gets back to Ron that Christopher has died in the Alaskan wilderness, he is so devastated that he recants his faith, refusing to believe any longer in a God who would let a kid like Christopher die out in the wilderness. The death of his own family didn't even affect him this much.
Into The Wild is now definitely one of my all time top 5 favorite films, if not my very favorite. I had never had such an emotional reaction to a film before, and it still gets me each time I see it. It's one of the few films that I actually own on DVD, and I highly recommend it.