Sunday, July 04, 2010

Into the Wild

I recently saw the film Into the Wild. It’s an adaptation of a “true story.”

Part of the movie’s magnetism lies in the perennial appeal of a road movie. This taps into the profound and universal metaphor of life as a journey through time and space. OT history and typology plays on this metaphor. Adam and Eve banished from Eden. The nomadic life of the patriarchs. Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, on its way to the Promised Land. Israel’s exile and return.

This also plays out in the life of Christ. His boyhood as a fugitive. His public ministry as a journey to the Cross. At a cosmic level, his coming to earth, return to heaven, and second coming.

This also represents the pilgrim motif in NT theology (Acts 7; Heb 11). That’s why we call the Christian life a “walk” of faith. Paul “ran the race.” The dialectic of exile and homecoming.

I suspect that God has programmed this metaphor into the psyche of the human race. A subliminal “homing” instinct.

The genre allows us to meet a cross-section of humanity as well as a cross-section of geography. So the film benefits from a powerful collusion of intrinsically compelling features. An early example of this genre was the TV series Route 66.

The film also triggers a related motif–the loner, the drifter.

Up to a point it’s only natural for many young men to have an adventurous streak. A hankering to see the world. Revel in their boundless energy and freedom of movement. Test themselves against nature.

The nicest scene in the movie is watching the protagonist (Christopher McCandless) paddle down the Colorado River in his kayak, in the glowing waters, surrounded by canyons. The film also profits from some good folk music.

In one of his encounters he befriends an aging hippie couple. To some extent they represent an older version of himself. Rebellious. Living on the edges of civilization.

However, they also reflect the disillusionment with their chosen lifestyle. While it may be fun to be a twenty-something hippie, it’s not so fun to be an over-the-hill hippie.

He also befriends a widowed veteran. This sets up a classic interplay between youth and age. The young are risk-takers. Living for the day. At their age they can blow one opportunity, while having another opportunity just around the corner. Time is on their side.

By contrast, the old man has the far-sighted wisdom of painful hindsight. He is cautious. Sedentary. And lonely.

The character is played by Hal Holbrook in the twilight of his career. A seasoned actor who infuses ever word and gesture with a lifetime of personal and professional experience.

McCandless finally reaches his destination–the Alaskan bush–after crossing the Teklanika River during the dry season. For the first few weeks he’s ecstatic. Living out his dream. Awed by the rugged beauty and solitude of the Alaskan wilderness, as well as his unfettered freedom.

However, pride is his undoing. He prides himself on his ability to wing it. To coast through life. Live by his wits. Take each day as it comes. Improvise on the spot.

Yet he’s survived up until now on the kindness of strangers. He’s not as independent as he imagines. But in the Alaskan bush, there are no kindly strangers to rush to his aid. In large part we create civilization to insulate us from the dangers of the natural world. But in the wilderness, there is no buffer zone. A single misstep may be fatal.

McCandless sought out nature as a sphere of absolute freedom. But far from being free, he existed at the whim of an indifferent and inhospitable environment. No reprieve. A land of law, not gospel.

If the Colorado River epitomized his freedom, then the Teklanika River epitomized his captivity. The now-swollen river barred his exit. He died of starvation–alone and lonely.

The fate of McCandless is a parable of the unbeliever. It’s easy to live off the fat of the land in the spring and summer months. But when the winter of life overtakes you, unprepared, it is too late to stock up and hunker down.

Like McCandless, the unbeliever is rootless. Homeless. Fatherless. A desert saint without a calling. He treks into the wilderness, never to return.

“Too late!” The saddest words in the lexicon. Don’t wait until midnight to check your provisions. Be a wise virgin, not a foolish virgin.


  1. One of my favorite books of all time. I couldn't put it down.

  2. The film is supposed to be a much more idealised version of McCandless than the book.

    I enjoyed the film but I pretty much agree with Dan's thoughts...

  3. DJP SAID:

    "Here and I thought the movie was just a depressing, whitewashed song of praise to a terminally selfish, clueless, stupid, obnoxious, arrogant young man."

    I call your review and raise you Fred Butler's review :-)

  4. For a movie that depicts how deep seated bitterness and anger can drive a person to self-destructive, anti-societal behavior, it was well done. In an unintended way, Penn made an anti-homelessness movie.

    Bill Gothard would be all over it if it weren't for the creepy hippy nudity.

  5. I agree with me, and Fred.

    But more me.


    (Actually, I think we dovetail.)