One of my lifelong goals has been to hike the Appalachian Trail. I love being on it. So far, I have done the whole trail in the state of Georgia, and a very small portion of North Carolina. When I am out there, I feel a sense of peace knowing that I get a glimpse of God and His creation that I am rarely afforded in the flat, baking heat of Florida summers. Because it is so quiet (usually), you can almost hear the Almighty’s whisper on the wind, confirming what the soul innately feels: God is great! I have not been in a couple years, too many in my book, and I am itching to get back to it. My poor hiking backpack must feel neglected, if nothing else. Such excursions are a wonderful break from the mundane drudgery, and they are meant to be just that: a break. They are something you escape to for a short time because what you do back in the real world, despite its frustrations and annoyances, is important, whether or not you can admit it to yourself. To borrow the hiking parlance, often in our daily routines it is difficult to see the forest for the trees. Because of my love of nature, I was naturally drawn to Into the Wild (2007). While I do not advocate running from our problems as the main character so clearly does, I did at least appreciate the adventure he undertook. And then there is the ending. . . .
Into the Wild is the real story of Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch), who graduates from Emory University. There is something different about him, which you can tell right away as he runs and jumps on stage to receive his diploma instead walking on stage in the stately manner of his fellow graduates. After the ceremony, he pulls up to the restaurant where he is meeting his parents Walt (William Hurt) and Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) for a celebratory dinner. In the car with Chris is Carine (Jena Malone), his sister and closest confidant. At the meal, Chris’ parents offer to help fund his upcoming law school studies and to buy him a new car, all of which he brushes away and tells them to give to the poor. Then, instead of continuing his schooling, he donates his life’s savings to charity, loads up his beaten-up car, heads west, and burns whatever cash he has remaining on him. When his car is engulfed in water during a desert flash flood, he is now the wanderer he hoped he would be, even changing his name to Alexander Supertramp. Before going on, it should be pointed out that the story is presented in chapters, and each new one features a different person or persons he meets along the way together with reminisces of his life growing up and his life in Alaska. In the introduction I indicated how he is running away from his problems. Those problems are his parents. Walt drinks and is abusive, Billie almost divorces him because of his behavior, and both place high expectations on Chris. Thus, his title trek is a kind of rebellion, and it is narrated by Carine. The second part of each chapter, Chris’ arrival in Alaska, the goal of his travels, shows him making a home in an abandoned mass transit vehicle he dubs “The Magic Bus.” He finds it after being dropped off in the middle of nowhere, which I realize is a bit redundant when talking about Alaska. The third component of these episodes is the people he meets in his journey to this destination. I am not going to talk about any of them because that would unnecessarily lengthen this summary. The important part is that they all have an impact on him, and he on they. Each stop also is a temptation to give up his ambition of making it to Alaska. I say this because they are good people with whom he forms a bond, and those are not easily broken. Nonetheless, he carries on and lives for a year out in the Magic Bus. It is not easy, as one might expect. And when he has had his fill, he decides to return . . . only to find the way back blocked by a swollen river. Matters are made worse when he eats from the wrong bush, and poisons himself. From there, he slowly weakens and dies. Before the end credits roll, it explains that a few moose hunters found him roughly two weeks after his passing. They were also able to bring back his personal effects, including his journals, which is why we know so much about what happened to Chris in the first place.
I have to admit that part of me wants to be like Chris in Into the Wild, without the dying part, of course. In recent meetings with my Spiritual Director, we discussed having a beggar’s spirit. Though Chris does not beg for anything, and is willing to work his way through his journey, when he steps out after burning his money, he is relying on God alone to provide. This is vaguely referenced, if not directly said in the film. It is not a lifestyle to which everyone is called, but we can all do with a little more reliance on God. If you are a dad and have a family to feed, it is not as simple as believing you can leave off getting dinner tonight because God will provide. Looking after a family is a vocation, and doing so glorifies God when you are seeking a relationship with Him. Taking our same hypothetical dad, assuming he continues to work at it, the goal is to rely on God but relinquishing control over everything else. This is so hard, and it is something that Chris seems to master along the way. God grants us all with abilities that we are called upon to use vocationally. And that is all we can do. We cannot force somebody to give us a promotion, a fancy car, a large home, nice clothes, or anything else material, nor should we place our hope in these things. This is what Chris sees his parents doing, and it is a big reason why he runs away.
As I mentioned earlier, I am not of fan of Chris decision in Into the Wild to leave his family in the dark about his plans. God says to confront our problems. That does not mean to do it without discernment, so maybe the time he spends away is him contemplating what to do about his feelings towards them. It is telling that the film shows Chris with his dying breaths imagining a tearful, though happy reunion with his parents. However, it is his death that annoys me most about this movie, and takes me completely out of it. Though having the brashness of youth (at one point he paddles the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon on a kayak with no helmet despite being an amateur), he is also portrayed as being intelligent and able to hack it in the wilderness. There is the incident with the moose that he shoots and attempts to field dress (hunting term for taking the meat off an animal you shoot), but the less said about that part the better. Anyway, he seems to be capable. And yet, he is defeated by a river after barely attempting to cross it when he decides to leave. Then, despite being careful about such things, he misidentifies a plant because he did not carefully read his guide to edible wild fauna, which leads to his poisoning and death. If I were to sum up the film in a phrase, it would be this: college grad walks thousands of miles to Alaska only to poison himself and die. This, of course, does not do justice to any of his adventures along the way or the pretty cinematography. But it still annoys me.
One thing I will give the film credit for is having a little bit of restraint. One of the persons Chris meets near the end of his travels is Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), a sixteen-year-old girl who falls in love with him. One day she invites him into her camper with the intention of having sex with him. He responds that he is flattered, but ultimately (and thankfully, and gently) turns her down. The other person this Catholic appreciated is Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), particularly because I had the impression that he was a member of the Church like me. He talked about not wanting to miss Mass. It is nice, too, that he encounters Chris in a chapter titled “Wisdom.” It is probably because Ron is old and thus has much to impart to Chris, but any time my Faith is mentioned alongside words like “wisdom,” I am grateful. Otherwise, you can keep the rest of the movie.