(Nick’s Notes: This is a movie review in a series of movies that might make you quit your job)
I remember watching Into the Wild back in college.
Which was (holy shit) around 6 years ago or so, come to think of it.
I remember that I liked it. I don’t remember being astonished with it by any means, but it was moving, compelling and it was a great story about a man named Chris McCandless who was a mix of brave, defiant and really really stupid. There’s a lot of debate over whether McCandless was adventurous or just on a suicide mission but I think that sort of discussion revolves around trying to narrow McCandless down to a single element.
And whether it’s McCandless or anyone else, I don’t think that makes much sense.
For those who don’t know, Chris McCandless was a hiker, explorer and probably a bit of a philosopher, though I don’t think it takes any education (let alone a PHD) to be a philosopher. He went to college, donated his life savings to charity ($24,000) and decided to go on a trip across the US to get to Alaska, so he could escape to the wild.
Part of it has to do with his traumatic upbringing from abusive parents. Part of it had to do with the way Chris was always rebelling and “marching to the tune of a different drummer” as one of his peers suggested. Part of it had to do with the lies he was brought up with from his parents and how much he valued truth and honesty above all else.
There were a lot of reasons for him to do such a radical thing to his life and while maybe they weren’t the most mentally stable reasons, I can understand them, I think many of us can sympathize, at least to some extent. Wanting to get away from the obligations, the expectations, the city life, the problems of modern day living. There’s something to be said for the beauties of nature, of travel, of meeting new people and sharing in your happiness with strangers.
That said, Chris wasn’t a hiker growing up, he had very little experience or knowledge with the outdoors compared to what perhaps he should have. Mind you, he wasn’t completely unprepared, but he was also not an expert and perhaps not even amateur in the end. But whatever he was, he did had a drive about him that this movie represents well.
The movie is told in an interesting narrative fashion with Chris’s sister doing much of the narration and the scenes switching from Chris’s trip to Alaska and when he actually gets there. It’s a lovely way to contrast Chris’s goals and the reality of the situation that awaits him once he gets there. It’s not pretty, but that’s freedom for you.
Or is it?
Chris says many times throughout the film that living in nature, living simply, not having money or many material possessions is “absolute freedom” but I’m not convinced. And I don’t say that because of what ends up happening to Chris, I don’t say it because he was personally unprepared for the sort of freedom he loved. I say it because I think there’s real happiness to be shared in Things. Does society put too much emphasis on material goods? I’d say so.
But I also don’t think that means there’s nothing to it. And in addition, mediums of exchange are always going to be useful and Chris consistently reinforces that by getting jobs throughout his travels, sacrificing his time and energy for other people so he can keep going, etc. He doesn’t completely get away from work, money, owning things or civilization and often finds himself working within farms, fast food chains and whatever else he can do to make money.
I’m not bringing this up to discredit Chris. I don’t think there’s a lot to be gained from some sort of ideological point system whereby we view folks as less ideologically “pure” the more they compromise. But I also think it says something about how realistic Chris’s goals were, given his means. Means that would have been much better for himself if he had kept the savings that he had for college and used that to fund his trip and get away from everything he hated.
I understand that this would have made things harder in some respects and less “exciting” for Chris, but it also seems to me like freedom doesn’t always come from excitement. Excitement, risk and danger are all integral parts of being free but they aren’t the only essentials ones and you can’t keep living such a meaningful life if you’re always risking your limb.
It’s at least not a very sustainable strategy for trying to live a long and happy life.
But Chris seems to have been satisfied and happy all along the way. And maybe that’s because there’s something to a lot of what he says about what it means to live a meaningful and rich life. At any rate, I don’t have anything against folks deciding to take trips for themselves and exploring the great outdoors, I think nature is fantastic for freedom.
On the other hand, I don’t accept the notion that civilization needs to be “escaped” from. I think we could all use a vacation from our lives and perhaps some need some longer than others. But I’d argue that has a lot more to do with the jobs we work, the lives we wished we led and the ways the state and capitalism interfere with those ideals.
Unfortunately, Chris’s ideas never really go so far as to challenge any of those things. He certainly has a distrust of authority which is good and a penchant for disobeying it if it gets in his way and he doesn’t hurt anyone. Chris often is allying himself with the hippies and the outlaws and weirdos and I like that about him.
Ultimately however, Chris learns that for happiness to be meaningful, it has to be shared.
And you can’t do that by closing yourself off from everyone who loves you.
I recommend the film wholeheartedly even after a 6 year gap in my viewings. It made me want to quit my job and go on a long trip and reconnect with nature a bit. But that’s also not that hard to do, given my (low-level I’ll admit) love of nature of my (certainly relatively high) hatred of work and the jobs I tend to work.
Still, it was successful in making me want to quit my job.
A win is a win.
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