God Demands Community: Review of ‘Into the Wild’

I’m probably the last person to see the movie Into the Wild who is actually going to watch it in theaters, so I apologize if I am covering old ground. I was not planning on writing any sort of review, but the movie surprised me so I have recorded a few thoughts for your entertainment.

The movie, as you may know, is about the life of Christopher McCandless, the young man who essentially hitch-hiked his way to the Alaskan wilderness and died after a few months. It is based on the best-selling book by Jon Krakauer. Both the book and the movie experienced wide commercial success, but both are criticized for idealizing the life of a young man who essentially killed himself by going Into the Wild without a map and a juvenile understanding of what it meant to “live in the bush.”

I was not too excited about the movie for several reasons. First, I had a roommate who went through an annoying period I referred to as his “McCandless period” – it was the best name I could come up with for a period wherein this roommate tried very hard to be McCandless after reading the Krakauer book. Second, I agreed with a great deal of the criticism of the book that focused on the fact that McCandless was a selfish boy whose story is a celebration of selfishness and never ending boyishness.

But I watched it, and I am glad I did.

Artistically, the movie is praiseworthy even if not a strong candidate for Best Picture. Emile Hirsch portrays McCandless and delivers a strong performance, and one that should establish him as a serious actor. His performance in the far less popular Alpha Dog was a strong one as well, but the artistic failures of that movie made it impossible for Hirsch to outshine the movie.

The direction and production quality of this project, however, provide Hirsch with the platform necessary to deliver an admirable performance. I remember watching the movies Ray and Walk the Line and being so persuaded by the acting that it was easy to forget that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash were not IN the movies. I got the same feeling from Into the Wild. As the story progresses, one is easily persuaded that Hirsch must be carrying and nursing the same destructive appetite for adventure and self-approval that drove McCandless to his death.

And it is the progression of events leading to his death that makes the movie worth watching.

Early on in the movie we are given a glimpse into the life of a bright, idealistic and injured young man. Every indication is that he channeled all of those characteristics – his intelligence, his idealism and his hurt – into developing a philosophy of life he would later put into action. It turns out that he tried very hard to model that philosophy of life on the writings of Tolstoy, Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. Like a lot of young men at this stage in life, McCandless allows the ideas of these men to roar inside him like a lion expressing dominion over his territory. The territory was every bit of McCandless’s personality and his worldview.

He takes Tolstoy’s quest for solitude as a personal calling and leaves his mother and father, his sister, and one can only guess, everyone else who cares about him. He hitch-hikes for over a year and gives his family no word of his whereabouts or whether he is even alive. In his mind, they don’t deserve it. They have hurt him, held him back, prevented him from seeing that material possessions dampen our senses. He is justified in abandoning them. The world would be a better place without these artificial constructs of family, community or “society.”

He appears to reach the height of obliviousness once he arrives at the iconic abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness where he would eventually die. (Yes, he rejects commercialism and society to go into the wilderness and live in a . . . BUS.) While hunting, he approaches a Moose and raises his rifle to shoot the animal, presumably for food. He puts the rifle down upon seeing that the Moose is followed by its offspring. All at once, McCandless acknowledges that there are certain laws that bind the universe: shooting the mother of an infant animal would violate these laws. Similarly, later in the story McCandless does kill a moose, but loses the meat because he is not skilled enough to preserve it. Again demonstrating that he believes the world is bound by certain laws, he expresses his anger at the fact that he wasted the meat, recording the day as one of his saddest ever.

This is what the McCandless critics are getting at. The intense naivete of the protagonist.

Family matters. Community matters. And there is a strand of truth that runs throughout the universe. Leaving all of those for some juvenile adventure is the epitome of selfishness. A rejection of that truth. He touches on that strand of truth almost every time he moves in the wilderness, but can’t seem to come to the conclusion that he is violating it by turning his back on everyone who ever cared for him. He raises the rifle and shoots the mother in the heart with every day he chooses to continue his estrangement from her. He does not see that his intelligence, his rebel spirit, and his innate sense of leadership could have benefited at least his family and perhaps the world had he stayed part of it. And I tend to agree with the critics who point to all of these faults in McCandless and his story.

But the end of the movie is where I part ways with most critics.

Critics have failed to point out the fact that McCandless’s quest for truth really does come full circle, right at the moment he is dying.

I don’t think it is ironic that the movie makes a lot of his attachment to Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilych, the lead character dies after realizing that the things he was rejecting were exactly what he needed. He embraces redemption and appears to come to faith. Both McCandless and Ilych are said to have forgiven their families for the laundry list of crimes they’d committed against their spirits, both expressed great joy in their last breath of life, and both saw a bright light, just before dying.

McCandless was a deeply flawed individual. Like all of us. But, assuming this portrayal of his life and his embrace of truth is factual — a real “if” — it has led me to ask a few serious questions.

“Did God use his restless spirit and purposefully drive him to the wilderness and to his death as a mechanism to save his soul?”

“Could he have landed on the truth without having taken the path he did?”

“Was his family’s suffering the Severe Mercy God used to bring about God’s glory?”

These questions have definite answers. We get a hint throughout the film that faith had something to do with the conclusion to McCandless’s journey. It is subtle, but if you watch closely the books that appear throughout the movie, either in the background or the direct shot, he is constantly seen in the presence of a book by another Russian author: Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky.

Raskolnikov, the protagonist of the novel, is a virtual blueprint for McCandless. He is an extreme nihilist, so self-absorbed and proud that he must isolate himself from everyone. He rejects sentiment as a fools errand, social conventions as silly, and he embraces reason to the exclusion of everything else.

At the end of this novel, just like McCandless and just like Ilych, the protagonist sees the folly in the decisions he has made. He throws off his selfishness, his nihilism, and his rejection of community. He thanks God for giving him the wisdom to live a good life. A life that ends with the shining light of TRUTH crowding out all other images his eyes can capture.

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