Watching Emile Hirsch as McCandless walking those familiar streets in scenes from "Into the Wild" came as a bit of a shock. Had I passed this man on the street? Like McCandless, I had recently graduated and this was my first real job. Certainly, I had and have angst that still creates a wide gorge between my mother and I, but I had more mundane worries. I had worked myself through college; my parents didn't have the opportunity nor did they have the ability to extend financial support. I could hardly imagine, having, let alone giving away $24,000 to OxFam.
In this way, the movie about McCandless, based on Jon Krakauer's best-seller, is about a privileged young white man wanting to experience poverty and the so-called freedom it gives him. It is also the movie about a young man's dream.
As cool as "King of the Road" sounds or as people find Jack Kerouc's "On the Road," poverty and powerlessness can make it less fun. I think of Carlos Bulosan's 1946 "America is in the Heart" road tale. A minority and poor, his tale wasn't about the romance of the road, but about becoming American. He recalls a young girl and her even younger brother waiting until the railroad detectives are gone before, along with Bulosan and other men looking for work, they board a freight train in hopes of getting to California. During the night, the girl was gang raped.
I sat back in my corner and tried to sleep, brushing off the obscene conversations of the men around me. Then in the middle of the night, isolated in the corner of the box, I was awakened by the young girl's whimpering. She was desperately struggling with someone in the dark, breathing as though she were being choked to death. Then I heard her fall heavily on the floor, and she began to sob hopelessly. Her assailant dragged her to my corner. I could her the man fumbling at her. He was tearing hungrily at her clothes. ...After a while the girl did not struggle any more. She turned lifeless toward me, and in the dark I could hear her agony...With a sudden revulsion, I got up and felt for the man. But someone struck me on the head, and I rolled on the floor. There was silence for a long time; then as I returned to consciousness, I heard the stiffled sobbing of the girl again. Another man approached her...
Not everyone is so unlucky as that girl and her brother, and men don't have to worry so much as women. Perhaps what fueled McCandless' dreams was his good fortune and director Sean Penn emphasizes this. In his screenplay, Penn shows us at the very beginning how angry McCandless is with his parents and instead of being delighted at the offer of a car, he becomes angry. There are many people who would never and will never be able to afford a new car. Turning down a new car as a gift, would be unimaginable. Yet this was part of the privileged life McCandless led.
While Penn doesn't take us on McCandless' previous forays into the wild where he would return to be restored to health by the parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) he would later distance himself from, he has the young man beginning his journey driving into a flash flood area and parking his car as he sleeps inside. The desert, as anyone native to the Southwest knows, is unforgiving. The flash flood doesn't kill him, but it encourages him to leave his car. He burns his money and begins walking and hitchhiking. Penn shows this because, in a sense, Candless thought it was important. According to Krakauer, McCandless took photographs to commemorate the occasion.
McCandless pushes his luck again, taking on white water with little experience and only a used kayak and life jacket. He survives and evades the officers patrolling the Colorado River to make it to Mexico in January 1991. At this point, he goes to Los Angeles. In the downtown area, he is also lucky. A year later, civil unrest would make the downtown so dangerous troops would be stationed down there.
In this respect, McCandless seems to share a kinship with Timothy Treadwell as documented by Werner Herzog in the 2005 "Grizzly Man." Treadwell, who was born in 1957 and therefore older than McCandless (born February 12, 1968), was born Timothy Dexter. Like Treadwell, McCandless took on the name Alexander Supertramp.
Treadwell didn't start filming until the last five years of his life. When he died in October 2003 he had spent 13 seasons in the Katmai National Park in Alaska. McCandless likewise had photographed himself and documented his big Alaskan adventure. In the Penn movie, there's also the intimation that McCandless wanted to go back and tell tales about his grand adventure and he did keep a journal.
Yet there is a downside to poverty, inside a city or out. Desperation for food is one and eating what you can and not what you really need is another. Moreover, experts will always tell you never hike in the desert, kayak or camp without telling someone where you're going and your schedule. And the list continues, including never go without a map or compass (or GPS). A cell phone could prove handy as well.
Penn also makes clear that although people tried to save him, from the hippy woman (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker as her companion) whose own son was lost to her to the old man (Hal Holbrook) who wished to adopt him, McCandless in his singular determination and even arrogance could not be saved from himself. One thing you learn from skid row is that you can't save these people. Grace Lee Whitney is one such famous survivor of skid row.
You can give them food, but for whatever reason--drugs or confused ideas--you can't save them by giving them money. For most of them, their deaths will not make national news or become a major motion picture.
In my own family, my father's elder brother disappeared around a time when the life of a minority was cheap and Asian Americans were still the enemy and not the so-called model minority. More recently, my cousin disappeared and has not been heard of for years. How his mother, who died only a few years ago, must have grieved.
Keener and Dierker give sensitive portrayals of individuals who have dropped out of the urban path to follow their own lifestyles, forming a non-traditional functional family. Keener's motherly concerns are particularly touching since we know how McCandless' saga ends. Holbrook, as a fully functioning member of society who has dropped out of social relationships, stuck in mourning for the wife and son he tragically lost in the 1950s, is heartbreaking as he finally reaches out to to doomed young man. As McCandless, Hirsch gives us a sense of the vibrancy of this man and his arrogance is not boastful, but characterized by quiet determination.
They estimate that McCandless weighed less than 80 lbs. at the time of death. Penn suggests that after weeks of suffering from starvation, he passed away in a kind of euphoria, forgiving and even longing for his tortured parents. He was discovered two weeks later and you can view the actual bus on YouTube. Penn has faithfully recreated the bus.
McCandless made the news and became the subject of a book. He became famous for fatally playing a hobo or as he renamed himself, a super tramp. Penn shows the agony of the parents, perhaps unimaginable for most people unless you too have had a child die senselessly and needlessly. Penn's choice to use grainy color film, suggestive of old home movies, gives us a more intimate feeling about McCandless and his family.
Penn leaves no doubt that McCandless left a gapping hole in his family that will reverberate for generations. McCandless' story, his idealism and his foolhardiness have given him a place in modern pop history as a well-to-do white boy who wanted to play at what so many of us struggle against every day.