Into the Wild


by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man who died at 24 in the Alaskan wilderness, when he was off on his dream adventure to the last frontier. Chris graduated from Emory University in 1990, told his parents he was packing up a few things for law school, then disappeared from the face of the earth into a hippie/homeless subculture for a couple of years, always in search of himself. He read Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Jack London and wanted to do what they had done: to deny himself comforts and to sustain himself from day to day on his own or with genuine people, away from the artificiality of the people he had grown up and gone to school with.

He met and befriended many people along the way: a farmer in the upper Midwest, a retiree in the desert, some hippies on the road, and others. Everyone he met seemed to like him. Everyone seemed to admire him. But nobody seemed to understand him. The drop-outs he met along the way knew what their fellow drop-outs were like, and Chris didn't fit the profile. He graduated with honors. He was a top athlete. He had a tremendous work ethic. He was a regular guy who liked to knock back a few beers. He was not particularly rebellious or disgruntled. He had no signs of mental illness, nor was he a chronic malcontent. He simply chose to heed the advice of his hero, Thoreau: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Chris heard a different drummer, and marched to that beat, all the way to his death.

When an Alaskan named James Gallien dropped Chris off at the head of the Stampede Trail, he knew the kid was in trouble. Chris's gear was far too light to survive what he wanted to do. Chris was not only unconcerned about his inadequate preparation, but he cavalierly left his watch and his map in Gallien's vehicle, and headed into the wilderness without a compass or radio, carrying no food but a ten pound sack of rice. Gallien's heart went out to the idealistic kid and he forced Chris to accept a pair of waterproof boots.

It was miraculous that Chris managed to live out there for 113 days. He did so only because he got the boots, and because he found an abandoned city bus which he did not know of before he began. That bus, placed there by hunters, contained a bed and a stove and provided shelter from rain, snow and wind. The existence of that bus in the middle of nowhere, far from any roads, was in one sense a blessing of providence. In another sense, it spared Chris from being killed by exposure or grizzlies, but did so only to extend his life long enough that he would die a prolonged and lonely death from starvation (or perhaps food poisoning from eating the wrong plant.)

It was, in fact, miraculous that Chris even lived long enough to get to Alaska in the first place. He probably should have died at least three earlier times in his short life. One summer in his college years he almost died in the other temperature extreme, while testing his ability at desert survival. One time he got a kayak out in the open sea and barely managed to struggle back to shore. A third time he went whitewater rafting in the mighty Colorado River, by himself, with neither training nor experience. Each time he could have died, perhaps should have, but survived. By the time he made it to Alaska he was far too confident of himself and his ability to escape from any predicament. And that confidence was almost justified. When he was ready to leave, he managed to backtrack effectively the same way he had come in, but he ran into one major snag. The tiny creek he had waded across in the frozen earlier months had become a raging torrent when the rains came and the snows melted off the mountains. Unable to cross the river, Chris was trapped behind it, and no game animals were trapped with him.

Writer/director Sean Penn told the story as objectively as he could, neither condemning nor rhapsodizing Chris. In order to keep the story true to reality, Penn used a meticulously researched source book as well as the recollections of Chris's family. The source book included the wilderness diaries of Chris himself. As auteur, Penn did precisely what he should have done: he kept the narrative accurate and easy to follow. Since Chris's pre-Alaskan life was separated into many unlike segments, Penn used the Alaskan conclusion as the framing device and broke that narrative up with long flashbacks to the other completely unrelated adventures which preceded Alaska, each of which had a different cast of characters, in the manner of a classic picaresque novel. Each time Penn brought the story back to Alaska, he had told us a little more about the man in the bus, until we finally started to change our minds about a guy who at first had seemed like an arrogant know-it-all prick. By the end we could see what had made Chris unique, and why people always seemed drawn to him. The flashback device also allowed Penn the writer to milk the emotion of Chris's death without wallowing in his suffering. In fact, the death was treated quite matter-of-factly, but it is deeply affecting to hear Chris in the flashbacks talking about what a great time he's going to have in Alaska. There are few things more affecting than optimism which we know to be baseless, but the poignancy in the script is derived from the optimism itself rather than the later misery. A nice bit of scripting, that, and a real sign that Penn is mastering subtlety. The direction is marvelous in another way. Sean Penn has always been great at drawing top performances from actors, and he did so again here, from many of the performers, but especially from Hal Holbrook, who received an Oscar nod. Although Holbrook will turn 83 in a week after I am writing these words, he had never been nominated for an Oscar. He has won four Emmy awards and acquired six other Emmy nominations, but those all occurred in the period 1967-78, so he's had a dry spell which Sean Penn helped him end.

Holbrook played "Ron Franz," the only major character in the film who is hidden behind a pseudonym, as he was in the book. The movie didn't really show why "Franz" wanted to remain anonymous, but the book did, at the end of Chapter 6:

"When Alex left for Alaska" Franz remembers, "I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one. I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So one December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn't believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex."

Holbrook didn't get to deliver that powerful scene, but he had others just as affecting.

I like this film very much, but I'll be honest and say that I would have trimmed the running time below two hours because I occasionally got a little restless during the film's 150-odd minutes. I do understand why Penn wanted to use as much of Chris's life as he did. In the last two years of his short existence, that boy had more adventures in more places than most of us will have in lengthy lives. Even as he realized he was dying, Chris wrote a note to posterity which mentioned how great his life had been, and that he had no regrets. Penn wanted to show us the full expanse of the adventures in that life, and to develop the background that led him to those adventures, as well as the characters he met along the way. There was a lot to show, and it consisted of good stories in picturesque and widely diverse locales, so the director fell in love with his story, too much so to lose any of it. I can't blame him.

Now that the film is over, I still don't know what made Chris so reckless or what caused him to hear a different drum. I don't really see any connections between the various parts of his life. His childhood experiences were sometimes difficult, but not unusual, just the kinds of things that happen to millions of children every year, children who do not grow up to be anything like Chris McCandless. Like everyone else who knew Chris, the director of this film liked him and admired many things about him, but didn't understand what made him so reckless or what kept him from calling his sister to say he was OK. Nobody seems to know those answers, or even to have a good guess. As a result, I didn't really gain any insight into what made Chris the way he was, but I do know he lived his life the way he wanted to, and that it was an interesting life to watch. One could say the same thing of Chris that my dad once told me of himself in his old age, "Everything about life is great - except the duration."

DVD Book
DVD info:

Two discs.

The second focuses on "The Story, The Characters The Experience"




It was nominated for two Oscars: for editing, and for Hal Holbrook's performance.

3.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)

Annual top ten.


4 Roger Ebert (of 4 stars)
3 BBC  (of 5 stars)
82 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
73 (of 100)





8.2 IMDB summary (of 10)

Top 250 of all time.


B+ Yahoo Movies





Box Office Mojo. It grossed 18 million dollars, which is no small achievement considering it never reached more than 660 theaters. It never made the top ten, but stayed in the top fifty for 23 consecutive weeks (and that streak is still intact as I write this). An Oscar nomination and a wide re-release might have made it a hit! (And that nomination was not out of the question when one compares this original movie to the formulaic Michael Clayton)





  • Signe Olsen appeared topless for some three minutes as a free-spirited Danish camper.
  • Emile Hirsch did a brief, distant frontal while floating on his back.
  • There is a brief scene in which Holbrook and Hirsch drive past a nudist camp.



Jan Krakauer's book "Into the Wild," the primary source material for the film, was an expansion of an earlier magazine article called "Death of an Innocent," which is on the internet in its entirety. It is recommended with 100% enthusiasm.

Here is the Wikipedia page dedicated to Krakeur's book. It offers quite detailed overview of the timeline.

Here is a You Tube video of some adventurers exploring the bus where Chris died.



Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:


It is a very strong film which showed surprising box office power in an arthouse distribution. An Oscar nomination might have made it a belated hit.