Into the Wild

[Christianity Today Movies, Sept 28, 2007]

I keep thinking I saw this movie before, except that then it starred Shirley Temple. A lovely young person appears and touches the lives of people from all walks of life, bringing them a little bit of sunshine, and guilelessly showing the way to a better life. But in the other movie there wasn’t a close-up of maggots crawling through a moose carcass. Not that I remember, anyway.

“Into the Wild” is a pretty infuriating movie, because it insists on treating the central character as an escapee from “Godspell.” In Jon Krakauer’s slim, fascinating, and disturbing book by the same title, Christopher McCandless is an ambivalent and somewhat pitiable figure. The son of a high-achieving couple, he did well at Emory University, but dwelt on courses concerning apartheid and the African food crisis. Chris became increasingly agitated by the gap between rich and poor, and revolted at his parents’ hard-earned success, as well as their hopes for his life. In a letter to his sister Carine, Chris told how their offer of a new car as a graduation present outraged him. (Chris had significant problems with his father, as Krakauer had with his own father, all of this contributing to the power of the book.) The verb “to drop out” isn’t heard much these days, but that’s what Chris decided to do. He would disappear after graduation and travel around the country, living on as little as possible, a resistor to the conformity machine. He abandoned his car, burned his cash, and dined on nuts and berries. The impact on the African food crisis has not yet been reported.

Chris also determined to make his escape in a way that would unmistakably shut his parents out. He arranged that the letters they sent him all summer (in lieu of calling; he had no phone) would be held until August 1, then returned-to-sender in bulk. At that point the trail would be cold: Chris had taken off two months previously. His parents would never hear from him again.

When Chris’ body was found in a bus near Denali National Park, people began to come forward who recalled meeting him on his travels. A middle-aged hippie couple named Jan and Bob (in the movie, Bob’s name is changed to Rainey) picked him up hitchhiking, and Jan tried to talk him into contacting his parents. In the book, Jan has fond memories of Chris (who by this time was using the name “Alexander Supertramp”). But in the movie, Jan is pulling away from Rainey and silently brooding over something; we see her walking away down a stretch of beach. Chris tells Rainey that he is afraid of water, but has to start getting used to it sometime. He runs down the beach and playfully urges Jan into the waves, where the two of them leap and play. That evening we glimpse Rainey and Jan having a heart-to-heart in their tent. It worked!

Ron Franz, an octogenarian who also gave Chris a ride, gets the same treatment. In the book, Chris lectures Ron that he too should sell all his belongings and live on the road—youthful ardor both touching and amusing. But in the movie, when Ron asks Chris, “What are you running from?” Chris shoots back, “I could ask you the same,” and brings Ron to a breakthrough regarding his own retreat from life. In the movie, Chris’ only flaw is idealism. Even his parents’ grief is a fruit of Chris’ heroism. His sister notes in voiceover that “What Chris was saying had to be said,” and that, if mom and dad were becoming better people, it was thanks to the hard lesson he had taught. When she felt pity for them she had to remember that Chris would not, that “these are not the parents he grew up with, but people softened by the forced reflection of their loss.”

So why so many stars? Mostly, because of the stars. Despite the gripes above, this is a terrific movie. It’s a gripping story, played out in visually astonishing places (brace yourself for some rough images, though.) But it’s the acting that deserves the most praise. “Into the Wild” was directed by an actor, Sean Penn, and he knows how to make the most of an actor. Catherine Keener is just right as Jan, conveying a mysterious backstory in every cheery-yet-weary glance. William Hurt preserves a numb, stony face throughout, only to crumple it exquisitely into tears in a fleeting but powerful moment near the end. Non-actor Brian Dierker, given an opportunity to play Rainey, creates an affable, scene-stealing character.

All of this means that Emile Hirsch, just 22 years old, has to share the screen with many venerable performers; but he holds his own, in a role that made extraordinary physical demands (he dieted precipitously for the starvation scenes, dipping below 115 pounds). Just about every performer here deserves similar praise, and there’s well-deserved Oscar talk going around. “Into the Wild” has great acting, great scenery, and a great story, and any viewer will be awed. It would have been just that much better if it had given us to see the real, flawed Chris McCandless, rather than a version made over into Shirley Temple.

Stars: ***

Rated: R

Genre: Adventure, Drama

Theater Release: September 21

Directed by: Sean Penn

Runtime: 140 minutes

Cast: Emile Hirsch (Christopher McCandless), William Hurt (Walt McCandless), Marcia Gay Harden (Billie McCandless), Catherine Keener (Jan Burres), Vince Vaughn (Wayne Westerberg), Hal Holbrook (Ron Franz)

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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