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Film Review of Into the Wild

INTO THE WILD. Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Hal Holbrook, Alaska/Artemis. Written and directed by Sean Penn.

If the sign of a good film is one that you reflect upon long after leaving the theater, then Into the Wild qualifies, for it demands to be considered on so many levels that one lone viewing seems insufficient. On one level Sean Penn revisions Jon Krakauer’s book of the same title, which details the tragic story of Chris McCandless. On another level, Into the Wild works as a hero’s journey as Chris is called to and embarks upon a spiritual quest. On yet a third level, Penn pens the American landscape in such a way that it becomes more than a cinematic backdrop for Chris’ adventures; it is itself a character. The often jarring juxtaposition of these three levels both exhilarates and disturbs the viewer, creating a vague unease that may possibly explain the mixed reviews by those who see Chris as a romantic, if misguided puer aeternus, and those who view him only negatively for the emotional devastation his behavior wreaked upon his family. In fact, such conflicting reactions testify to the film’s essential paradoxicalness, adding to its mystique.
      Penn does not hide the textual origins of Into the Wild. In fact, he celebrates them, for watching the film is much like reading a book: The scenes are divided into “chapters” with subtitles and dates, often lending the impression that we are reading Chris’ own words as he enacts the activities he describes. Indeed, Penn intercuts many of the scenes with what appear to be Chris’ handwritten notes, letters, postcards, and journal entries, making clear that the film attempts to remain “faithful” to the known facts and artifacts of Chris’ short life. Penn even includes a shot of Chris reading a poem to his sister in a scene that both reinforces the film’s textuality as well as portends what is to come. When Chris comes to the line “you’re going to do bad things to children,” we become aware of a dark shadow lurking within the otherwise seemingly normal McCandless family.
     Lest there be any doubt about the nature of Chris’ quest, Penn has provided us generously with chapter titles: “My Own Birth,” “Adolescence,” “Manhood,” “Family,” and “Final Chapter—Getting of Wisdom.” As he absconds, Chris clearly commences an initiation—a rite of passage on his quest for self-knowledge. In so doing, we become privy to the events that have shaped his life, leading him to the point where he feels compelled upon graduation from Emory with nearly straight As to give away his college fund of $24,000 to OXFAM, to cut up his credit and identification cards, to abandon his car, and to burn his cash.
     It soon becomes clear that the root of Chris’ desire for self-imposed exile extends far beyond ordinary (if it can ever be called that) adolescent angst: he holds a bitter grudge against his parents for exposing him and his sister, Carine (Jena Malone), to their often cruel confrontations. Penn uses the technique of voice-over effectively, which allows Carine to explain the family’s background and psychodynamics of an overbearing father (William Hurt) who bullies them and their mother (Marcia Gay Harden), forcing the two siblings to watch and even take sides during a discussion of divorce that never transpires. Such “witnessed violence” is bad enough, but even worse is the discovery during an earlier trip to California by Chris that he and Carine are technically illegitimate, having been born before their father was divorced from his first wife. Carine reveals what she calls the “ugly truth [that] redefined Chris and me as […] bastard children [of a] fraudulent marriage.” Of course, controversy over parentage is a common motif of the divine child, and Penn’s paralleling of Chris’s life with Christ’s is evident throughout the film.
     Like Christ who retreats to the desert, Chris withdraws. He intuits that psychic healing begins in solitude. Penn wastes no time establishing that Chris intentionally chooses to be alone; the first lyrics sung by Eddie Vedder as the opening credits roll are: “Have no fear / For when I’m alone / I’ll be better off / Than I was before.” Chris’ sense of alienation from his parents can be ameliorated only by physical separation. Cutting himself off from them is thus an integral part of his journey, as it is for all mythic heroes. As Campbell, Jung, and van Gennep remind us, separation is an initial phase of the monomyth, individuation, and rites of passage, of which all Chris’ actions are emblematic.
     Penn plays up Chris’ congruence with Christ in the impression he leaves on the other lost souls he encounters throughout his journey, including Jan Burres (Catherine Keener). Burres’ boyfriend, Rainey (Brian Dierker), perhaps expresses best Chris’ effect upon others when he asks Chris, “You aren’t Jesus, are you?” Penn bolsters this image repeatedly with shots of Chris on a mountainside standing with arms spread wide and floating on his back on the Teklanika with arms outstretched and legs together. Both scenes reinforce Chris’ crucified-Christ image: Like Jesus, Chris is on a mission and will not be deterred; he has been called. He has embarked upon a hero journey, except that unlike Christ, Chris represents the postmodern hero, “whose character arc is more nebulous and whose process shows a greater integration of unconscious factors.”1 In Chris’ character we see a complicated collection of complexes that make him seem more anti-hero than hero.
     While the stuff of many myths, heroes are unsupported by the contemporary society, which cannot abide its individual members becoming too independent. Indeed, society imposes strict sanctions on those who dare to buck the system; individuation comes at high cost. Consider what happens to Christ, and Chris fares no better. In one chilling episode Chris is caught train-hopping by a railroad-hired thug and severely beaten—one of the many trials that he, like all mythic heroes, must endure.
     Not all trials are externally inflicted, either. Indeed, both Christ and Chris undergo self-imposed ordeals. In many ways, Chris’ journey may be seen as a peripatetic purification. Feeling unclean after discovering the truth about the circumstances of his birth, Chris sets his sights on Alaska—one of the last remaining pristine frontiers—to “purify” himself and enter an Artemisian realm. Artemis beckons whenever the body demands a general purification, for the virginal goddess Artemis represents spiritual and physical purity. Chris’ odyssey corresponds, therefore, to an attempt to rid himself of the negative notions of himself as a bastard child and to be reborn as a new man. He adopts an Artemisian spirituality reflected by his chastity and asceticism.
     Such Artemisian sanctity has been demonstrated by the various ascetic traditions throughout history and is well-known to monastics who believe that chastity is de rigueur for all who seek enlightenment. Seen this way, chastity “resembles the castration of the priests of Artemis, who emasculated themselves voluntarily to enter the service of the virgin Goddess, approaching her through mimesis.”2 Chris’ chastity is portrayed most notably by his eschewing of love interests, including the 16-year-old girl, Tracy (Kristen Stewart), he meets at Slab City. Although she is quite eager to bed Chris, he turns her down, telling her she’s too young, but his real reason, it seems, is that such intimacy is simply not a part of his ultimate goal of returning to Artemis. In supporting such a belief, Krakauer points to a sentence circled in Chris’ copy of Walden, found with his remains: “Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it.”3
     Contained in Chris’ pursuit of purification is his quest for truth, for part of his sense of defilement is in the elaborate lie foisted upon him by his parents about his childhood, which made him feel “his whole world turn [and] made his childhood feel like fiction,” according to Carine. Consequently, truth takes on monumental importance for Chris, which is why he can’t bring himself to forgive his parents for their duplicity. For it is one thing to make up the Tooth Fairy; it is quite something else for parents to pretend they met and married in college when in reality Chris’ dad lived with his mom out of wedlock until after Chris and his sister were born, all the while being still married to his first wife and even having a sixth child with her, as is revealed. Chris makes clear what he thinks about deception while attempting to explain his position to Rainey: “To paraphrase Thoreau, ‘Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.’”
     The conflation of Alaska with Artemis is apparent from the beginning of Into the Wild. Before the introductory credits even roll, a half-screen superimposition of Lord Byron’s poem, “There is a pleasure in these pathless woods,” appears over a backdrop of impossibly gorgeous Alaskan scenery and wildlife. The romantic tone of Penn’s film thus is set, although kudos must go to Eric Gautier for his camera work that incarnates not just Alaska but all the locations, making them come alive along with the characters. The shots of glorious desert, mountain, prairie, and sea vistas go beyond scenery, and, in so doing, all of nature is personified. As Glen Slater says, “Personifying reminds us that psychic persons can’t be confined to literal characters and that intelligence and agency can appear outside actual people.”4 In this film place provides more than setting; it becomes a character. It embodies psyche. It is Artemis, and it is she who lures Chris—the unwitting Actaeon—to Alaska.
     After spending several years on the road, making friends along the way, Chris discovers that separation from his parents alone is not enough to sooth the savage beast within—what is known clinically as “negative introject.” His meanderings around the continental U.S. fail to assuage the utter disdain Chris continues to feel toward his parents and all they represent to him, especially what he sees as their hypocrisy, disingenuousness, and filthy lucre. However, it is not just his parents Chris is at odds with; he is rebelling against a society that seems to encourage materialistic greed. He has nothing but contempt for material possessions and money, which, as he tells Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan), “makes people cautious.” If anything, Chris is the antithesis of caution. But then, he is a puer.
     With what he considers to be thoughtful preparation, Chris eventually devises a plan for his Alaska adventure. Paris tells us: “When social life absorbs one’s energies completely, it is time to penetrate the deep forest of Artemis and allow nature to replace human relations. […] [T]here is a very evident link between a life rich in relationships and the need for solitary retreat in which the ego receives no stimulation.”5 As well as Chris relates to his new-found friends on the road, he finds their presence a hindrance to his presence to himself. Consequently, he finds himself “attracted by the asceticism, simplicity, and naturalness that characterize Artemis, [and] solitude appears as one of the ways of entering her world.”6 Chris understands he must finally do what he has been talking about for two years: go to Alaska.
     That Chris chooses the deep woods as his final destination underscores the symbolic significance of the wilderness forest, which is not simply a miscellany of trees; it is enchanted. In other words, the forest is a place where spirit is infused throughout and psyche’s work of transformation becomes possible, as we see in Chris’ encounters with the moose and the bear. This connection to the unconscious is confirmed by Heinrich Zimmer when he says that the “enchanted forest [is] the dark aspect of the world [where] the elect, who survives its deadly perils, is reborn and leaves it a changed [person]. The forest has always been a place of initiation, for there the demonic presences, the ancestral spirits, and the forces of nature reveal themselves.”7 It is this enchanted quality that comes from personifying.
If the allure of Alaska is in its Artemisian numinosity, such appeal is countered by an inherent ominousness. In Chris’ tragic moose experience—filmed in slo-mo that renders it mythopoetically as ritual—may be seen the consequences of defying Artemis and portends Chris’ demise. Like Actaeon, Chris commits a cardinal sin against the nature goddess: hubris that allows him to think he can have his way with Artemis. He assumes he is sufficiently prepared for his confrontation with her, but he is not: The curing method he has scrupulously written down and brought with him to Alaska has been given to him by a hunter from South Dakota who doesn’t know that issues like timing apply differently in the Far North, where the longer summer days cause carcasses to rot faster. When Chris finds his moose covered in maggots much earlier than his hunter friend had predicted and before he has had the opportunity to finish curing it, he is devastated, a mood only partially mollified by his observation of wolves devouring the remains and so benefiting from his misprision. It’s one of four critical mistakes Chris makes that lead to his downfall, the others being his choice of time of year (he arrived in May when hunting and gathering is especially difficult), failing to take into account the increase in water level in the Teklanika River during the summer which makes it impassable, and failing to understand that the potato seeds he thought were safe to eat become toxic in the summer.
     Also like Actaeon, Chris paradoxically is transformed by his experience; the predator becomes the prey. Whereas Actaeon’s metamorphosis is physical, and he is changed into a stag, Chris undergoes a psychic transformation as he comes to understand better the contradictions of Artemis, the protectress and huntress, who giveth life but also taketh it away. Ultimately like Actaeon, Chris’ return—both literally and figuratively—is to the primal womb of Artemis, and it is she who presides over his initiation into the mysteries of her nature. Artemis’ significance is that she “personifies a force which urges us to withdraw from human relationships and to seek elsewhere, in solitude, another kind of self-realization.”7
     Chris’ journey comes full-circle when he arrives in Alaska. Convinced when he heads out that he must lose everything that connects him to his past, he apparently undergoes a change of heart while there and arrives finally to a sort of decision to go back. Evidence found with him in the old Fairbanks transit bus he inhabited during his months in the Denali wilderness includes a marked up copy of Doctor Zhivago in which he indicates his apparent readiness to return to civilization. At the top of the page on which the following passage occurs he has printed NATURE/PURITY and is so seemingly excited by what he reads that he has scribbled notes in the margins and underlined several places, according to Krakauer:

“Lara […] rediscovered the purpose of her life. She was here on earth to grasp the meaning of its wild enchantment and to call each thing by its right name […]. And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness. […] And this was most vexing of all.”8

This passage is read as a voice-over, and the illuminating words—HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED—written next to the above passage appears as Chris/Emile is writing them down. Whether Chris intended to renew family ties remains unclear, but he obviously felt a restoration of desire for some form of human company. The irony, of course, is that by the time he is ready to return to civilization, Chris is too incapacitated from starvation to walk out—a potent image of the spiritual pull going too far. Such paradox is the essence of the hero in that he can cope with the greatest perils, yet, in the end, something relatively insignificant is his undoing.
     It is at this point in the film that Penn presents what is perhaps his most magical personification of nature: Chris is standing motionless, undoubtedly frightened but not outwardly so, as a massive Alaskan brown bear wanders by, its hulking body just inches away. The animal is momentarily curious but not really threatening, and Chris bears the beatific expression of one experiencing satori as he stands perfectly still, eyes locked with the bear’s. Is he hallucinating from hunger? Possibly, but it doesn’t matter, for it demonstrates the way in which cinema transcends literature; we see what Chris sees. We see Artemis in all her glory. Artemis, the bear, creates soul movement in Chris and through him in us, the viewers, as well.
     In so doing, Penn’s effort succeeds in ways that the book cannot. Krakauer may only surmise that Chris’ experience is similar to his own had while scaling Devil’s Thumb, an Alaskan mountain ascended by only the hardiest of climbers. While Krakauer does a capable job telling what it’s like to come face to face with Artemis, the film shows us by simply focusing on Chris/Emile, whose look conveys fear and rapture simultaneously—the primordial kinship with all creation that Actaeon’s fate personifies.
     Into the Wild exemplifies cinematically how wilderness works as a metaphor for the unconscious. Moments like Chris’ encounters with the bear and moose are virtually impossible to articulate in words, yet are essential in communicating the paradox of Artemis—that she is exquisitely sublime and simultaneously dangerous—for they allow us, the viewers, to experience vicariously what the on-screen character feels. We understand better what Chris senses because we see it on his face; indeed, it emanates from throughout his entire body; whereas words like “beatific” or “sublime” or whatever adjectives might be used simply cannot convey the same essence of meaning. In Chris/Emile’s emotive expression, then, we feel the movement of psyche—both his and ours. That Chris fails to survive Artemis’ “deadly perils” does not diminish the implicit heroism of his quest. In his contacts with the animals, plants, and landscape—which Penn meticulously films in their actual settings—Chris finds the Artemisian spirituality he seeks.
     Into the Wild shows us that for all his blundering hubris, in the end Chris gains a wisdom many never experience though they live far longer than Chris’ 24 years. Despite what must have been an agonizing death, his final message, written on a piece of paper and attached to the bus, seems almost upbeat, considering the circumstances: I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!10 Such remarkable sanguinity is borne out by what is perhaps the most breathtakingly beautiful death sequence ever seen in a film. The final scene begins with a montage of Chris with family and friends, which could have come off as a maudlin cliché of “life passing before his eyes,” but is edited so well as to allow us to feel more than sympathy for him—we see Chris’ journey as something to which he has been “called.” In the words of Carine, “everything he is doing has to be done.”
     Following the montage of his past, the film cuts to Chris as he writes “happiness only real when shared” in Doctor Zhivago, as noted above. The next image is a sustained spiraling from tight close-up outward that cuts back and forth between the sun and Chris’ face as the life ebbs from his body; yet the look on his face is of utter peace, “serene as a monk gone to God,”11 or in his case, Goddess Artemis. This crane shot astonishes in how it manages to remain focused on Chris’ ecstatic expression as our view spirals slowly away until the window of the bus frames Chris, then the whole bus comes into view, until it is a mere speck in the forested landscape. In such a juxtaposition of camera angles, Penn forces us to acknowledge that life is all about perspective.
     As with Christ, there is at times a compulsory madness involved in dying a worthy death, in which the ego-driven part of the self is sacrificed through its transformation. Through the integration of the three layers of biographical narrative, hero myth, and personifying in Into the Wild, we reach an understanding of just how powerful is the eternal lure of Artemis, the ancient goddess of nature, whose message we ignore at great peril. Like Actaeon, the hapless Chris learns Artemis’ lesson the hard way and pays with his life. Yet his final moments, like virtually every scene, are rendered so aesthetically that it is possible to appreciate Chris’ demise, tragic though it is, as paradoxically blissful. Through Chris we become visually intimate with the search for self and depth. It is a journey that can take place only by going into the wild.

NOTES

1. Glen Slater, “Archetypal Perspective and American Film,” Spring 73 (2004): 17.
2. Ginette Paris, Pagan Meditations (Dallas: Spring, 1987), 133.
3. Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild (New York: Anchor, 1997), 66.
4. Slater, 7.
5. Paris, 134.
6. Ibid, 135.
7. Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse—Tales of the Soul’s Conquest of Evil, ed. Joseph Campbell, (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1973), 181-82.
8. Paris, 129.
9. qtd. in Krakauer, 188-89.
10. qtd. in Krakauer, 199.
11. Ibid, 199.

 

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