Christopher McCandless, the doomed Emory University graduate who tossed everything to live the life of a hopeful vagabond criss-crossing America in the early-1990s, scribbled the above quote days before he died of starvation, alone, in a dilapidated bus in rural Alaska where he had been living for months.
The colorful short life of McCandless -- chronicled in Jon Krakauer's book, Into the Wild, and now in the mesmerizing and beautiful Sean Penn film adaptation of the same name -- can be viewed as a spoiled kid posturing through a pretentious rebellion against his troubled, yet privileged, youth. Or, as Penn suggests, his rebellion could also have been a valid attempt to exorcise the past through experiencing life on his own romantic Thoreau-inspired terms.
Into the Wild, the movie, ultimately presents McCandless as somewhat of a tragic figure: two years of a bountiful life full of individualistic adventures and searching, a life where his passion for living touched all he encountered on his journey still ended with his solitary death in a mammoth wilderness so far from the world.
This, however, doesn't make his journey, or the film, seem like a waste. To the contrary, until his lonely passing, the paths McCandless (embodied in a wonderful performance by Emile Hirsch) chose -- whatever his disillusioned intentions -- crammed a lifetime of passion into his short time on Earth. Of course, the very nature of cinema lends itself to romanticizing the celluloid heroes, but with Krakauer's investigations, there was no question that those with whom McCandless shared his nomadic quest were touched by the young man's enthusiastic zeal for the possibilities of this world. The hippie couple (portrayed in the film by the always wonderful Catherine Keener and newcomer Brian Dierker) who saw him as a younger vessel of themselves. The wild farmer (Vince Vaughn) whose wild ways were somewhat tempered by the naivety of McCandless. And, of course, the elderly religious widower (portrayed, in a deeply felt performance, by Hal Holbrook) whose lonely life was turned topsy-turvy by the entry into his world of McCandless, the possible embodiment of a son whose life was lost decades earlier.
It's telling that Penn, of all people, paints a strong spiritual significance to the story of McCandless, where Krakauer tended to discount such ideals. Christ-like imagery of the innocent hero floating naked down a river in a crucifix pose; the hippie dude asking if McCandless could walk on water; and a stirring, emotional scene on a mountain where the widower and McCandless touch on the nature of God -- all of these moments (not to mention the last few minutes depicted of McCandless' life) point to a deeply felt appreciation of a divine touch in our lives and in the life of McCandless.
It's also telling that in Krakauer's book, he notes the widower renounced God when he learned of the young man's lonely passing. That Penn left that point out of the film perhaps shows that, despite one sad man's disillusionment, the life of Christopher McCandless was, indeed, somewhat of a spiritual touchstone that one cannot overlook.
Thus far, 2007 has been a knock-out year for cinema, and I have yet to see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood and I'm Not There. Into the Wild is a significant accomplishment by Sean Penn that will be remembered when one looks back to this productive cinematic year. By all means, add it to your viewing list.