Be warned, spoilers abound in the waters ahead...
As I write this, I am watching American Idol. Idol, it would seem at first blush, couldn't be any further from INTO THE WILD, the mostly-true, somewhat-guessed-at, story of Christopher McCandless. McCandless was a recent college graduate who decided to give all of his savings to charity and hike into the Alaskan wilderness to live. He did not make it out alive.
American Idol is the paragon of the pursuit of the American dream. Young people, competing their hearts out to make millions of dollars and sell millions of records. Meanwhile, INTO THE WILD tells the story of a young man who forsakes all earthly possessions, save what he can carry on his back, in pursuit of the earth. Idol is about excess, McCandless craves simplicity. Idol promotes the participation of everyone in America, Alexander Supertramp (McCandless' alter ego) wants to ultimately be left alone.
But when I think about it more, I think that the two entities are more alike than they might seem.
McCandless encounters people along his journey toward Alaska who offer him their hearts. He seems to engender this spirit in those he meets, a spirit that wants to nurture and take care of him. The hippie couple who see him as a substitute for the son that they never had together. The grain barn owner who sees a little brother to play with and pal around with. The old man (played brilliantly by Hal Holbrook) who finds a grandson and an heir. But Christopher (or Alex as he's renamed himself by this point), uses each of these people, not with a spirit of malice, but almost with a sense of pity, like he's sorry that they haven't figured out what he's figured out about the world and how it works. He puts much more credence in the words of Tolstoy and Jack London, even while they are telling him that true happiness is found in the company of others. So when each of these people who love him begin to get too close, too attached, he picks up his pack and hits the road again.
Like Idol, McCandless is driven through his self-imposed exile by ego. He is convinced that he has it right and the rest of the world has it wrong. That he will find happiness in Alaska is never even a question for him, despite having little to no training in how to live in the wild. When he does realize that his books on edible plants and his notebook with tips on what to do with wild game aren't going to be enough to keep him alive, it dawns on him that living alone is not a sustainable life.
Idol is about superficiality, McCandless never bothers to use the wisdom of the people he calls friend. Idol relishes the concept of destiny, Supertramp believes to his soul that his is waiting for him in the wilderness. Idol makes "idols" out of pop stars, Mariah Carey and such. McCandless takes the words of his favorite authors as gospel, even over those who have fought and won happiness and have it to spare.
There is a scene where he is reading Tolstoy, a selection from Family Happiness, and he seems to find this passage to be validation for his experience.
"I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work, which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor - such is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that, you for a mate, and children perhaps. What more can the heart of a man desire?"
But at the end of it all, his realization that he ignored the last portion of that quote is not enough to save him from his ego-driven decisions. Being alone in the wild is what undoes him.
It's a brilliant film. Sean Penn's direction is gorgeous, and Emile Hirsch as McCandless should have garnered an Oscar nom. The supporting cast is flawless as well. Highly recommended.