When Sean Penn released the film adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s eponymous novel about Christopher McCandless back in 2007, many critics hailed it as evidence of Penn’s directorial genius. Considered to be one of the finest films of that year, Into the Wild is actually quite a curious relic. The figure of McCandless is divisive to begin with, but so is Penn’s film, oscillating between dreamy romanticisations and pointed critiques.
In 1990, a young college graduate from Emory University renounced the materialism of modernity, rejected the wealth of parents, donated his college fund to charity and set out into the wild. He even gave up his name, calling himself Alexander Supertramp. Into the Wild is the tragic story of that young man who embarked on the all-American quest to find himself only to be confronted by his own mortality.
From preparing for Harvard Law to ending up dead in an abandoned bus in Alaska, McCandless’ story is seen as inspirational as well as a cautionary tale. Many adventurers consider McCandless to be a prophetic figure who saw through the illusory nature of our constructed reality by choosing to access the forgotten landscapes of an ancient world. Penn agreed with such assessments as well, claiming that the indifferent hostility of the natural world is important for a better understanding of the human condition.
While talking about his obsession with the narrative, Penn said: “McCandless quotes somebody else in the movie: ‘If just once you put yourself in the most ancient of circumstances…’ This is where nature comes into it–and I think that Eddie and I share this feeling–that every sober-minded person of any belief would probably agree that the biggest issue is quality of life. You’ve gotta feel your own life to have a quality of life, and our own inauthenticity, our corruptions, get in the way of that. The wilderness is relentlessly authentic.”
With the help of Eric Gautier’s mesmerising cinematography and Emile Hirsch’s moving performance as the young man, Penn manages to create a modern American epic about the divide between spiritualism and modern society. He strings together visions of a remote America and contrasts it with life in the American metropolis, indulging in subtextual commentary about McCandless’ escapism, socioeconomic realities and race realism in 21st century America.
Although it is often labelled as a ‘coming-of-age’ story, Into the Wild actually chronicles the regression of McCandless. Unable to cope with the trauma of childhood abuse and radicalised by the romanticism of obsolete idealists like Henry David Thoreau, McCandless decided to retreat into the wilderness where he would not be reminded of his past. In many ways, it was his attempt to conduct the systematic erasure of his own identity. He did so by reminding himself of the insignificance of humanity while getting lost in the majesty of the natural world.
However, that also poses the central conflict for any evaluation of Penn’s adaptation. Is the filmmaker trying to glorify McCandless’ infantile rebellion against technological advancement like Theodore Kaczynski, or is he criticising the entire quest by depicting it as a childish tantrum? Although Penn never comes clear on it and even tries to pass off McCandless’ banal revelation – “Happiness [is] only real when shared” – as something deeply profound.
It is not McCandless on trial but the illusory ideas of American individualism and “ultimate freedom”. As is clearly evident from McCandless’ case, the only liberation he actually experienced was his death in a decrepit van in the middle of nowhere after starving to death. Since Penn is ambiguous on the point, it is up to the audience to see what they will in the sprawling, gorgeous Rorschach test that is Into the Wild.