My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.
Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was 22 when he set out on his journey and just 24 when it ended inside the abandoned “Magic Bus” in the wilderness of Alaska, and yet judging by the brief en tries into what is not quite a journal, he find a measure of wisdom. However, this was not from accepting the words of his father or regarding his father’s “commandments” as “treasure.” It was in reaction to what he thought were his father’s shallow, materialistic values, and his abusive treatment of his mother that Christopher, assuming the name of “Alexander Super Tramp,” ventured forth on his epic journey that took him across the country, interacting with a number of generous people who contributed to his growth—and he to theirs. The story is told through the narration of sister Carine McCandless (Jena Malone) and numerous entries in the record that “Alexander” wrote down during his journey. Based on Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, director/writer Sean Penn gives us a film that will be long remembered!
Christopher seems to have the world at his feet when he dines with his family following his graduation from Atlanta’s Emory University. His father and mother, Walt McCandless (William Hurt) and Billie ( Marcia Gay Harden) are proud of him and look forward to his entry into Harvard Law School. His sister Carine obviously looks up to him. He assures them that his $24,000 college fund is adequate for now, but we see his rebelliousness when he turns down his father’s graduation gift of a new car. Christopher likes his old one just fine and is not dissuaded by his father’s arguments that he should accept a new one. And then, without any warning, the son writes a check to Oxfam for $24,000, cuts up his credit cards, burns his Social Security ID, and leaves town with camping gear and a trove of good books (Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London). Caught out in the desert by a flash flood, he has to abandon his car and set off on foot. His desire for total freedom from what he apparently sees as the materialism of his family leads him even to burn the several hundred dollar bills he had brought with him.
The film jumps back and forth from Alaska to the various times when, along the way, Christopher had met a series of people. including the man in Alaska who, upon dropping him off at the edge of the wilderness, had given him a pair of boots, telling him that if he survives, he can return them by calling the number inscribed inside one of them. With a few exceptions, such as the railroad cop who savagely beats him when he catches the young man emerging from a box car, the people are friendly. Among these are a couple of foreign students whom he chances upon while he is illegally paddling down a canyon river, but their encounter is cut short when he hears a park police patrol boat approaching. Up in the Dakotas he enjoys working on a combine with Wayne Westerberger (Vince Vaughn), but this too is cut short when the FBI show up and arrest Wayne on charges that are not fully disclosed.
An aging hippy couple Jan Burres (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) he encounters twice. The first time near the ocean he helps heal a breach between them, and then later at a hippy encampment called “Slab City,” he stays with them in their trailer and helps sell their used books. Here he develops a relationship with a teenage singer but holds back from sex out of respect for her young age. In the southwest desert Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) takes Christopher into his home and heart, each having a good effect upon the other—so much so that the old man, whose wife and only son had been killed by a drunk driver, offers to adopt him when he returns from Alaska.
All this leads to one of Christopher’s last entries into his record as a part of the final film chapter appropriately called “Getting Wisdom,” “Happiness is only real when shared.” Unfortunately for Christopher, he will not benefit from his wisdom, because when he tries to leave the bus home in which he has survived a tough winter, the spring rains and melting of snow has turned the small stream he crossed earlier into a raging torrent. In his weakened condition there is no possibility of his crossing over. What I had thought would be a morbid story of a foolish young man throwing his life away in the wild turned out to be a stirring true story of a journey toward wisdom and understanding. There are a lot of people who live into their nineties who never reach the wisdom or experience the beauty and comradeship that 24 year-old Christopher McCandless did. We grieve for him, for his loss is our loss, but we also celebrate with him his journey. No wonder Mr. Penn was drawn to this story.
1) How does “Alexander Super Tramp’s” rebellion seem like a tale out of the 1960s? Against what is he rebelling? Compare the values he is seeking with those embodied in the Sermon on the Mount.
2) Do you see his tearing up his credit cards and burning his money as an act of foolishness, or one of faith? What do you think of his not contacting at least his sister—as immature selfishness, or—?
3) What do you think of the words of Lord Byron that are shown at the beginning of the Film?
There is pleasure in the pathless woods There is rapture on the lonely shore There is society where none intrudes By the deep sea and the music in its roar I love not man the less, but Nature the more.
How is this a very romantic view of nature? (Do you think that the English dandy ever confronted Nature in all its rawness as did Christopher?) Compare this with Christopher’s last statement in the list below.
4) How do the various people whom “Alexander” encounters help him—and how does he help many of them?
5) What do you think of the following observations he makes along the way: “The core of mans’ spirit comes from new experiences. “ “Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth. “ “Some people feel like they don’t deserve love. They walk away quietly into empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past.” “Happiness is only real when shared.” 6) He has but the briefest encounter with the old artist at the hippy encampment, but do you think that the man’s religious art impressed “Alexander” ? What about the man’s words to the younger man, “When you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines upon you.” How does the filmmaker underline this? (Remember how the clouds part and the sun shines forth?) How might Christopher applied this to his relationship with his parents?
7) How does the epitaph that Christopher carved show that he had indeed arrived at wisdom and sought and searched for it “like gold” and “hidden treasure” ? If my memory is right, it reads: I have had a good life And I thank the Lord And God bless us all.
8) How would you regard Christopher: naive and foolish; noble rebel; spoiled child of the privileged class; bold seeker and adventurer;—? Or a combination of them all? How is their both tragedy and triumph in his story?