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.