Into the WildFriday, October 26, 2007
Christopher McCandless lived a silly life and died a silly death. Here was a guy who gave his savings to Oxfam (twenty-four grand, no less), left home without uttering a word to his family and who thought salvation lay in the wilderness. Too bad, then, that he ate the wrong type of plant and carked it.
All the time we’re told what complete arseholes McCandless’ parents are. They drove Christopher into the wild. But what was their crime? Apparently they argued some, even lied a little and their children were born out of wedlock. Okay, they’re not the best parents in the world, but do they deserve the harsh treatment that their son dishes out – no letters, no postcards, no phone calls.
Well, if you’re a massive prick and you’re somehow unable to comprehend that human relationships are more complicated than a simple ‘they’re good’ or ‘they’re bad’, then you may be able to build a case for young Christopher, but if you have any depth of feeling in your soul, you may well think that McCandless punished his parents beyond anything that is reasonable. And also remember that he never contacted his beloved sister. She got the silent treatment as well. However, we have a scene where Christopher goes to call her, but instead he gives his quarter to an old man who is running out of change. What a great guy, we’re asked to think. See how he lends a helping hand to strangers. But what about his poor sister, the person who loves him most in the world? This apparently is his one feeble attempt to reach out and tell her that he’s okay.
But no, Christopher is determined to live alone in the wilderness - to find himself. He wants to escape from a sick society where people treat each other poorly. Hell, his parents even have the nerve to offer to buy him a new car and pay for a Harvard education. Those wankers. Those phonies. Those shallow fakers who give him a home to live in and money to spend. How disgusting they are.
Okay, so fair enough, the parents that we’re presented with here are stiff, middle class dweebs who are more interested in appearances than anything of any substance, but what had me shaking my head was the assertion that Christopher’s disappearance made them better people. Suddenly they’re thoughtful and united and in tune with one another. Yes, that’s what every strained marriage needs – their children to put them through a couple of years of hell.
But what I find most objectionable is the romanticising of the wilderness. Is this the only way that anyone can find themselves, by opening their arms and standing on the edge of a mountain and by kayaking down a river? Isn’t there any other way? Apparently not. We even get a scene where Christopher, briefly stranded in LA, looks into a restaurant populated by smarmy fucks and sees a yuppie version of himself. You see what he’d become if he stayed in the city? Hunting moose and talking to hippies is the only way to become a rounded individual. And plus he needs to get out of the urban cesspool. Crack addicts eye him and the smell of booze, drugs and bum rape lingers in the air.
But the disaffection with society in this film is incredibly adolescent. In one scene, Christopher and a buddy of his just start impotently shouting ‘society!’ Yeah, society sucks and the wilderness is great. The wilderness never starved anyone, ate anyone or froze their balls off. In the eyes of every bear and moose is truth and beauty, and on the cold streets of civilisation is a steady flow of lies and bullshit.
However, at the end, Christopher maybe finally begins to understand that his quest is full of shit. He writes something along the lines that happiness is meaningless if you don’t have someone to share it with. It took you all that time to figure that out? That human connections are what make life bearable? Cocking Christ Almighty, you could have found that out back home, sitting on your couch in your underpants, stuffing Cheetos down your throat.
But of course, it’s the journey that matters, isn’t it? And what a tedious journey it is. Christopher meets hippies and quirky foreigners (who are good) and men with badges (who are bad). He helps people like a shaggy-haired Littlest Hobo and enjoys the milk of human kindness. Well, he enjoys the milk of human kindness as long as the people are poor. Everyone who has no money in this film is an insightful, kind-hearted, itinerant poet. Plus none of the hippies he meets are smelly, ugly, incoherent bastards who drown in their own drug-fuelled bullshit. No, they’re inspiring people, who plaster their vehicles with outdated sentiments like ‘freedom’, ‘peace’ and ‘love’. And Christopher even falls for some gorgeous hippy girl. But being the fool he is, he doesn’t shag her because she’s sixteen and fucking her would be wrong. Idiot.
But it’s notable that there’s a moment when even a bear won't eat Christopher. Supposedly the bear turns his nose up at him because the kid stays calm or perhaps because he’s so sick he doesn’t smell that good. But I’d like to think that the bear turns his nose up because it’s bullshit he can smell, and lots of it.
However, as we all know from Timothy Treadwell, bears don’t mind a bit of BS, but alas the film can’t even come close to the genius of Grizzly Man, a film that shows you’re no closer to finding reality in the wilderness than you are on the city streets. The problem here is that Penn is celebrating McCandless’ folly instead of investigating it. Not for one moment are we asked to consider that this kid is perhaps a bit of an idiot. We’re meant to find his journey inspiring and his plight tragic. But instead it’s neither of those things. And at the end his death is elevated to grandiose status (it’s shot like he’s ascending to heaven, that he’s communing with god). But in reality his death is what happens when a deluded fuckwit tries to live in the wilderness without a map or enough food.