Men play at tragedy because they do not believe in the reality of life tragedy which is actually being staged in the civilized world. ~ Jose Ortega Gasset (Quoted in Into Thin Air)
Sean Penn is clearly a very talented artist. He’s also annoying and self-righteous as hell, at least sometimes (and I’m saying this as someone who basically agrees with many of his opinions). So what happens if someone annoying and self-righteous makes a film about someone annoying and self-righteous?
In the case of In the Wild, what happens is that you get a beautiful, moving, disturbing and infuriating film.
The film clearly has admiration for the uncompromising cut Chris McCandless makes with his family and his past, and for the way McCandless – calling himself Alexander Supertramp (he doesn’t seem to be ironic about this) – goes out into the American wilderness to become himself. Penn’s movie, especially in its images, shares his protagonist’s awe at the beauty of the country and of nature, and so do we to some extent. Part of me definitely thought, “Yeah, man, I’ll get rid of all my belongings, get some survival gear and live like Grizzly Adams! Right on!” And I didn’t even need to be smoking pot to think it.
At the same time, McCandless (as portrayed in the film) can’t be described as anything else than a self-righteous, selfish adolescent. Clearly many of the societal conventions he abandons are also selfish in nature – do parents have any claim to their children’s lives? does a sister have a claim to her brother? But Chris makes people care about him and then he’s off. Being human, the film implies amidst the awe, also involves human contact, human responsibilities… and responsibilities seem to scare McCandless. It’s either that, or he’s cheerfully callous about waltzing into people’s lives and then waltzing out the moment they feel for him.
It is this ambivalence about the central character that makes Into the Wild more than just a beautiful film. Some critics have been rather negative about this: why feel awe for such a selfish jerk? Didn’t McCandless simply got what he deserved? Yes, he (the movie character – I don’t want to judge the real person on the basis of a movie) is selfish, and yes, he is a jerk. Yes, he’s a coward who doesn’t have the courage to forgive. Yes, he’s also an idealist and a dreamer, and his cowardice is also his courage. Strip the film of this central ambivalence, and you turn the movie into a simplistic cautionary tale: Don’t abandon your family and your cosy capitalist surroundings to go into the wild, because you’ll die of starvation in an old bus, only to be found by moose hunters two weeks later.
Personally, I prefer to feel both awed and infuriated. I prefer to be given enough space to make up my own mind. And space is something Penn’s film has in spades.