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2006 films

Into the Wild

A review by Tom Condon, OP

Into the Wild
is the amazing, true story of Christopher McCandless, a wealthy young man, who, upon graduating from Emory University in 1990, drives his old car out West and simply disappears for two years.  Chris despises his parents’ wealthy suburban Virginia lifestyle.  He has been deeply hurt by their deeply dysfunctional relationship and frequent fighting.  Chris dreams of living on his own, making his way through the West, and eventually to Alaska.  He accomplishes most of his dream, hitchhiking across California, working on a wheat farm in South Dakota, kayaking the Colorado River into Mexico, and eventually making his way to Alaska, living on his own in an abandoned school bus for six months. 

In many ways, Chris resembles the hippies of his parents’ generation, with his disdain for conventional society.  When asked what he wants to do with his life, he responds that the concept of career is a very recent invention.  For countless generations, people have been living off the land.  Why change now?  Along the way, Chris meets many interesting people, including like-minded hippies Rainey and Jan (Brian Dierker and the excellent Catherine Keener) who take a real liking to Chris, but also challenge his cutting of ties with his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden).  Later in his journey, Chris meets Ron Franz (the veteran actor Hal Holbrook, in a wonderful performance), a man who has lived alone for decades after the tragic death of his wife and son and his subsequent battle with alcohol.  Ron becomes a real wisdom figure and surrogate father for Chris, teaching him the importance of forgiveness and love.  And even that most rare thing of all for a mainstream film:  Ron, a deeply religious man, talks to Chris about God.  The scenes between Chris and Ron are quite moving.

Director and screenwriter Sean Penn adapted Into the Wild from the book by Jon Krakauer.  Penn’s film takes its time telling Chris’ story, moving backward and forward in time.  For much of the film, Chris comes across as likeable young man, but I kept waiting for him to get over his hurt and disillusionment and return home.  The film is narrated by Chris’ sister, Carine (Jena Malone).  While Carine shares many of Chris’ feelings about their parents, she is also hurt that he never attempts to contact her.

I admit that I was restless with the film’s 2 hour, 20 minute running length.  However, the last sequences of the movie are engrossing, as Chris starts to come to grips with himself and his need for others.  Through the care of Rainey, Jan, and especially Ron, he begins to experience the love he did not feel at home.  As excited as Chris is to get to Alaska, he eventually experiences loneliness.  His final entry into his journal reflects that love needs to be shared with others.

Interesting, too, is the effect of Chris’ disappearance on his parents.  Their sense of loss seems to humanize them as well, as they begin to mourn the loss of the gifted son they misunderstood.

Despite its rambling length, Into the Wild is ultimately rewarding.  As with any religious quest, Chris’ soul-searching and reflection on the friends he meets along the way brings him in touch with his desire to be connected to others and even consider God.  Although few of us have taken as extreme a journey as Chris, I think his experience will certainly touch the itinerant spirit in us all.

Tom Condon, OP      

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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