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Into the Wild

Into the Wild, 2007

After graduating from college, Chris (Emile Hirsch) feels a profound sense of alienation from his family and the path he's expected to take in society. Donating his college fund to Oxfam, burning his social security card and cash, Chris sets off into the wild with the ultimate plan of making his way to Alaska. Along the way, Chris encounters a range of people. But for all his attempts to find peace within nature, Chris finds his off-the-grid existence more challenging that he anticipated.


I imagine that if you weren't familiar with the basic outline of the story of Chris McCandless, this film might feel like a coming of age adventure. Going into the film knowing about the tragic end to this young person's life, it plays out like a slow motion car crash, a disaster that many people saw coming but were unable to prevent.

I think that it could be easy to see this story as a cautionary tale. A lesson about the old saying that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Certainly there's something difficult in watching a young man with five figures in the bank, a college degree, and a lot of societal advantages willingly throw away those privileges and put himself in the path of danger.

But the film firmly grounds you in an understanding of Chris's point of view, even if you don't agree with his conclusions. Chris feels a great sense of betrayal on learning that his parents have lied to him and his sister about the nature of their family. The path that he sees in front of him is frightening, and he tries to escape into nature.

Throughout the film, there are many people who see the danger of the path that Chris is on. He gets a job at a grain mill, where his boss (Vince Vaughn) warns him of the danger of trying to travel north in the approaching winter. He twice encounters a couple (Catherine Keener and Brian H. Dierker) who listen to his ideas about living without money with a patient wariness. They don't want to shut him down, but they realize the precariousness of such a life. In the end, he befriends a leather worker (Hal Holbrook) who, as they say goodbye, seems to know that Chris won't be coming back as promised.

The movie also does a great job of showing the double-edged sword of being out fully in nature. It is beautiful. It is deadly. With each adventure, there is a sense that Chris has gotten lucky. You begin to feel that he will only be lucky for so long. In a recurring visual, Chris tightens his belt, eventually punching new holes in the leather as his body wastes away.

A friend of mine from high school, two years after we graduated, disappeared in the wilderness. He went away for a weekend to go hunting or fishing and was never found. This film definitely hit me hard.

Hirsch gives a really stellar lead performance. He portrays Chris as a mix of sensitive, optimistic, naive, and curious. There is a degree of purity to his pursuit of happiness that keeps you with him, even as he makes one frustrating choice after another. I also really appreciated Jena Malone's voice over in the role of Chris's sister, Carine, as she struggles to understand her brother's journey.

Really powerful stuff.