Monday, June 09, 2008

"Into the Wild" reflections: glorifying selfishness and death?

I just saw the depressing movie "Into the Wild" (2007), scribed and directed by Sean Penn. Yikes. These thoughts will be spoilery... but not too. Unless you think a film on the last days of Lincoln would be spoiled by a reviewer who mentions the assassination.

The film is based on a book about the last, lamentable days of Chris McCandless, a young man who ran away after college and ended up dying in the Alaskan wilderness. I have not read the book; Roger Ebert has, and clearly loved both it and the movie. He says the latter is faithful to the former.

I think the movie is meant to be a bit hagiographical. We're supposed to see young McCandless as idealistic, wounded, naive, bright as a star, but ill-starred. I think this is confirmed beyond doubt by one climactic and significant change Penn makes.

In the movie, the last scene shows McCandless staring rapturously up into the sky, smiling, and dying. You hear his heartbeat grow rapid, then cease.

And then you see a sign that movie-McCandless left on the bus in which he spent his final days and hours. The sign reads, "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!" Uplifting, eh?

Except that's from a journal note, and I don't know its date. The actual note he left on the bus read, "S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. In the name of God, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you, Chris McCandless. August?"

Not so uplifting, eh?

The movie depicts McCandless as wounded by his parents' sometimes-violent quarreling, their materialism, their expectations. So in reaction the boy lies to them, deceives them, liquidates his assets, and lives out the vision others write about: heading ultimately towards Alaska to be a pure man, free of possessions and entanglements, one with nature. On the way he meets various hippies and transients, and there is some nudity. One refreshingly different note is that he actually refuses a sexual come-on from an attractive young girl. Don't see many in movies turning down sex. Ever.

I love survival-type films and stories. My favorite Louis L'Amour novel is Lonesome Gods, which features a man's trek across the desert. Science-fiction or real life, I always love struggles for survival — from a distance. That's what attracted me to this movie.

What I found instead was a terminally and destructively selfish, self-absorbed, self-impressed young fool who reaped pretty bitter harvest from the seeds he sowed. I am sorry, but unsurprised, that some regard him as a heroic. He is anything but.

Sadly, no one is shown as having clearly told young McCandless the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Young Chris was left to follow his heart. That's Hollywood's Gospel: follow your heart — but it's really a dyspel. The heart isn't our beacon in a dark world. The heart is deceitful and desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9). Anyone who actually trusts his heart is not a wise visionary, but a fool (Proverbs 28:26). We need deliverance from our hearts, but enslavement to them (Romans 7:24).

McCandless followed his heart "into the wild," and it killed him.

Viewed as a visionary revelation, the movie is a failure.

Viewed as a cautionary tale — bingo.


Anonymous said...

Sean Penn. Yikes.

Double Yikes!

I think I would rather (die) in the Alaskan wilderness than watch a Sean Penn film.

I always love struggles for survival — from a distance.

Dude. You were in the midst of it there. And you survived a Sean Penn film. You're a better man than most.

DJP said...


Kim said...

Hmmm... I like Sean Penn the actor. Perhaps he should stay on the other side of the camera?

DJP said...

And never, never speak in public.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I want to say that I enjoy your blog and get a lot out of it.

Concerning Penn's film - I think you saw the protagonist as a "selfish, self-absorbed, self-impressed young fool" because Penn presented him that way. Also as being somewhat courageous and at least willing to try to live out his ideas. I thought the chief strength of the film was its two-sided point-of-view of the character. Other assets were its acting and its showcasing of the physical beauty of this country.

I agree with you about the idealized ending. Thanks for the info about what was really written on the note.

Penn as a human being is consistently annoying at best. But I think he should be given his due as an artist.

DJP said...

I think I see what you're saying: "two-sided" in that he's shown blithely doing his thing and essentially ignoring pleas to contact his folks; while at home, folks are in misery over him?

Fair enough. Thanks.

Fred Butler said...

My neighbor who is an old 80s TV star lent us his award screener of the film back around Christmas. All the issues you raise with the film are definitely true, and I mentioned as much when I gave a blog review of the movie.

At the same time, however, the film is strangely compelling for me. Not only does Penn do a good job telling an engaging story, but the main kid did a tremendous job portraying a self-absorbed narcissist, who couldn't get over the bitterness he carried from his family. The film certainly is a cautionary tale that tells how a life lived according to our selfish hearts can often times lead to woefully tragedy.

One strange note is how here in LA when the film was being pushed locally as a potential academy winner on all the radio stations, the ads for the film presented it as this care free youth flick where a young man discovers life. People went into that film thinking they were going to see some up lifting film, but instead learned how he discovered life alright - real nasty cruel life.


DJP said...

Rats. You disabled search on your blog; I wanted to read your review.

Yeah, he discovered life, as it was ripped from him. But he never understood it or found the key to it, as far as the movie is concerned.

Yep, it really torques me when a movie is misleadingly advertised, as was done famously with "Million Dollar Baby," and as i discussed in my review of "Bridge to Terabithia."

Fred Butler said...

Sorry about that bro. I am kind of dumb about that sort of stuff.

Here's the link

I must say that you tend to be much more spiritually insightful with these movie review things.


CA RN to Honduras Missionary said...

Alas, movies like this will never make it to many parts of the international world. Living in Costa Rica we get to enjoy stimulating movies like Saw IV, The Ruins, and Prom Night... sigh...we do manage to get Narnia, Indy, and Iron Man, but not the more insightful movies such as this one. Nim's Island, another that I really wanted to see never saw the screens here. Interesting...I wonder who decides what movies make it here and which don't. Will have to wait for the DVD on this one.

candyinsierras said...

I read the book and saw the movie. Another privileged spoiled boy who shed his materialistic, capitalistic upbringing in order to get close to "gentle Mother Earth". My brother is a real wilderness kind of guy, and his response was that the guy was just really stupid. He made many mistakes due to his romantic notion of what wilderness living is really all about. Too bad his paradise was short lived. I hope that God met him in the wilderness, that somewhere along the line he heard the Gospel.

LeeC said...

Oh c'mon Dan. If personal fullfilment is important enough for Buddha to abandon his wife and kids to find it it should be important enough for this kid.

I mean, it IS all about ME right?

Singles said...

Listened to the audio book some years ago. Was aghast that anyone thought the story was "movie worthy" .

Much like that other sad-sack (bar-tender drugo)that went to Alaska to "save" the Grizzly bears (that don't need saving) and got himself, his girlfriend and 2 bears killed.

Shame so many people hold these aimless drifters in such high regard.