The film opens with the camera panning around a darkened bedroom. It offers a quick glance at a young man’s framed picture. We hear a ghostly voice calling “Mom, Mom, help me!”
A woman starts up in her bed, crying out “I wasn’t dreaming! I didn’t imagine it! I heard him, I heard him, I heard Chris!” She continues to insist “I heard him!” as she falls into her husband’s arms, weeping.
Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) dramatizes Jon Krakauer’s true chronicle of Christopher McCandless’ two years’ tramping across the United States to Alaska. After graduating from college, McCandless embarked on his grand adventure without a word to his family; he gave his savings to charity, cut up his ID and credit cards, and hit the road with some camping gear and a few books.
We don’t hear much from Chris’ mother (Marcia Gay Harden) after the opening scene. She becomes to the viewer what she’d become to her son: a sad presence, hovering in the background. Instead, and provocatively, it’s his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), whose voice-over — first accepting and understanding, then sad and surrendering — guides our experience as we watch Chris create a new, but only temporary, family on the road.
Carine’s narrative helps to explain why a young man with all the advantages of middle class economic stability and a liberal arts education might chuck it all for a more unpredictable life. He was always an adventurer, she says, from the time he was four and wandered, in the middle of the night, to a neighbor’s house, where he was found raiding the candy drawer. The summer after his high school graduation he drove himself cross-country to California and learned his father (William Hurt) wasn’t married to his mother, and that he had another son (born after Chris), a discovery Chris shared with his sister, but kept from his parents. The siblings, always confidants, became a family on their own then; flashbacks show them intertwined outside rooms in which their mismatched and angry parents battle.
Children of course — and unfortunately — may endure much worse without cutting off family ties. But Chris, in his sister’s words, “measured himself and those around him by a fiercely moral code.” His parents’ deception, “a murder of every day’s truth,” shakes him to the core, “made his childhood a fiction.” He puts them at the top of the list “of people who just hurt each other: parents, hypocrites, politicians,” and tells those he meets on the road that his parents are just “living their lies.” He writes them off quite literally, instructing the post office to hold their letters to him long enough to give him a good head start on his escape; the letters are returned in a bundle, undelivered, a slap in the face to his mystified parents.
Carine is unsurprised. “It was inevitable that Chris would break away, and when he did, he would do it with characteristic immoderation.” She finds much to interpret from Chris’ silence, and her voice-over, interwoven with the postcards he writes to a road-friend and the daily journal he keeps of his Alaska days, forms one leg of the tripod on which director Sean Penn rests the film: words; landscape (viewed in gorgeous long shots that emphasize the distance Chris is traveling); and the gutsy, endearing portrayal of Chris by Emile Hirsch. Hirsch’s Chris is a sympathetic, sometimes goofy kid, who talks to the tasty apple he’s eating, shaves joyously in the spray of a sprinkler, and glories in a white water run down the Colorado River. But he does take his Alaska plan seriously, preparing both his gear and his body, gathering information from people he meets as he makes his way gradually north. He cobbles together a road family: a father figure on a farm in the Dakotas; a younger sister in a camp called Slab City; a grandfather in Salton Sea; parents on a California beach. “You look like a loved kid — be fair,” Catherine Keener’s Jan tells him when he speaks badly of his parents, but ultimately he abandons her, as he does the rest of his road family, and continues on his way.
At home, his parents’ anger softens into pain and Carine wonders why he doesn’t get in touch with her; “the weight of Chris’ disappearance,” she says, “had begun to lay down on me full length.” Her words rocked me out of my Alaskan reverie to think about my own family. I’ve got two older brothers living 3,000 miles away. We may not talk every week or even every two, but I know that when I call, they’ll call back. We’ll connect. I thought about Carine McCandless and how I’d feel if one of my brothers just . . . left. Nothing on the surface of my life would look much different, but I’d walk with a persistent ache no doctor could ever heal.
And then my thoughts turned to my boys, young brothers who wriggle like puppies together in the oldest one’s bed each night. I thought about Eli, who from the time he could talk has called Ben “Buh-buh,” for “Brother Ben,” the sharp urgency in his voice now when he calls out “Ben!”, about how bereft he’d be if that call went unanswered one day. I thought about how Ben runs to give Eli a hug before we leave his kindergarten classroom each morning, and then bends down gently to give Eli a kiss on the cheek. I can’t bear to imagine them losing each other. To move into adulthood having lost the shared history and understanding created with a brother or sister would permanently cloud one’s days.
Carine McCandless longs for her brother, his voice, his stories. “What did his voice sound like now?” she wonders. “What would he tell about now?” There’s defeat in her voice when she says, “I realized words to my thoughts were of less and less meaning. Chris was writing his story and it had to be Chris who would tell it.” Chris never does write to his sister directly, but he keeps writing till the end: his daily journal, a carved wooden sign, even some words between the lines of Tolstoy’s Family Happiness: “Happiness only real when shared.” He’s got tears running down his cheeks as he closes the book, climbs into his sleeping bag, and closes his eyes.