A Phil-for-an-ill Blog

September 7, 2008

Into the Wild (2007) (Tragedy, Epiphany and Closure)


Without a doubt this is the most heartfelt and gripping movie I have seen since a long time and as a tribute I want to attempt to reveal its meaning the way I see it. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend you go see it first as I will assume you are already familiar with the story. A decent synopsis can be read here.

I know that Into the Wild’s director Sean Penn blames wanderlust as being the main component for Chris’ decision to leave everything in life behind and embark on his risky journey to the inhospitable inland of Alaska. And it is true that most young males, albeit to varying degree, have a certain risk-taking propensity as this is simply part of our biology and so won’t deny this. However, in the case of Chris I think there is something more to it than wanderlust combined with perhaps a Thanatos instinct (thrill-seeking, aggression and risk-taking). In fact, I think that pure wanderlust and recklessness even take a backseat in Chris’ motivation to take off.

Therefore in this Blog-entry I want to lay emphasis on an other factor, regarded as being of less significance by Penn, and that is the tragic and dysfunctional nature of the family situation that Chris had to deal with when growing up. I will use quotes and screen-shots from the movie support the viewpoint that Chris’ decision to take off on his soul-searching journey was largely fueled by his disgust and aversion for the deceitful and dishonest lives his parents were leading.

"They're about to get married. They're kids. They're dumb. All they know is they're innocent. They would never hurt anybody. I wanna go up to them and say stop... don't do it. She's the wrong woman. He's the wrong man... You're going to do things you would not imagine you would ever do. You're going to do bad things to children. You're going to suffer in ways you never heard of. You're going to wanna die."

With Chris reading this book-passage to his sister and commenting that it could have been either one of them writing it, he affirms the morally bankrupt marriage of his parents.

"Are you worried what the neighbors might think?"

With this Chris appeals to the conscience of his parents who, through lying and deceiving, have chosen to live a life of make-belief and ‘keeping up appearances’. It seems that this is their way of covering up the deceit that they have perpetrated by maintaining their fraudulent marriage. The price they have to pay is the onset of paranoia, fear for discovery and subsequent condemnation by society. To gain solace they resort to surrogate means of satisfaction in the form of material riches and focus on turning their company into a success. Chris recognizes the spiritually destitute road his parents have chosen to go down on and shows disagreement by rejecting their ‘false securities’ as artifacts of their corruption.

"It was inevitable that Chris would break away and he would do it with characteristic immoderation."

"It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations with absolute freedom and the road is always led west."

Was it inevitable that he would break away because it was in his blood? Or was it because he despised the lives his parents were leading? If valid arguments can be given for both alternatives, the truth may very well be a confluence of both. I expect this to be the case with Chris also, perhaps simply because they are mutually supportive in their effect or that either alternative can be used to mask the other — perhaps more important one — through rationalization. With that I mean that Chris may go around telling people that his lust for wandering drove him on a journey when in actual fact he just wanted to get away from his parents. The opposite may be also true however. I am inclined though to think that mere wanderlust fails to explain all the transpired events and actions motivating Chris to take his flight.

"a clever boy, my brother..."

Perhaps the confusing and problematic situation at home contributed to developing his keen sense of understanding and — perhaps even more importantly — a deep yearning for wanting to understand.

"I understood what he was doing. That he had spent four years fulfilling the absurd and tedious duty of graduating from college. And now, he was emancipated from that world of abstraction, false security, parents and material excess. The things that cut Chris off from the truth of his existence."

Chris knew, perhaps even by merely observing the dysfunctionality of the marriage of his parents, that going down the road of material excess could not possibly bring genuine happiness and so he chose to abandon its pursuit altogether.

"I don't need money, it makes people cautious. ... Rather than love, and money and faith, and fame, and fairness, gimme TRUTH."

Chris spells out the one thing he then regards as being most important in his life since he was convinced that he received so very little of it during his life, particularly in the department of familial affairs of course.

"By the time the company had made its first million. The careerism and money only seemed to embolden their blindness."

Chris’ parents pursued their false securities to such extent that their narcissistic tendencies made them oblivious to the pain they caused to their children.

"Some people feel like they don't deserve love. They walk away quietly in empty spaces, trying to close the gaps of the past."

I regard this to be a realization through introspection on Chris’ part. I think Chris’ parents were prevented from loving their children by a sense of shame and guilt brought upon by their realization of having made some very grave mistakes earlier in life. His parents failure to give him love may have seemed to Chris as if he was not worthy of their love. It may also be that — similar to what victims of abuse may experience — in a sense, Chris may have felt responsible for what had happened in the family, that he felt guilty (for being born?) and as such considered himself not worthy of love because of it.


“The sea only gives harsh blows and occasionally the chance to feel strong. Now I don’t know much about the sea. But I do know that that’s the way here. And I also know how important it is in life to not necessarily be strong, but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind death stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head. “

Chris’ urge to prove himself by itself can indeed be interpreted as being something that is shared by most young people, both male and female.

"Imma be all the way out there. On my own. No fucking watch. No map. No axel. No nothing. Just be out there in it, you know. Mountains, rivers, sky, game. Just be out there in it, you know. In the wild ... Getting out of this sick society! Society you know, society! Cause, you know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other, so fucking often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment. Control. All that, the whole spectrum.

No doubt a reflection on the nature of the lives of his parents has taken a prominent role in causing Chris to say these words. He blames society as a whole, which to some extent is justified of course, but he may easily have regarded society in a more positive light if he would’ve grown up in a stable and functional family.

"The year Chris graduated high-school he bought the Datsun used and drove across country. He stayed away most of the summer. As soon as I heard he was home I ran into his room to talk to him. In California he hooked up some old family friends. He discovered that our parents' stories of how they met, fell in love and got married were calculated lies masking an ugly truth. When they met dad was already married and even after Chris was born dad had had another son with his first wife Marsha, to whom he was still legally married. This fact suddenly redefined Chris and me as, bastard children. Dad's arrogance made him conveniently oblivious to the pain he caused. And mom in the shame and embarrassment of a young mistress became his accomplice in deceit. The fragility of crystal is not a weakness but a fineness. My parents understood that fine crystal glass had to be cared for or may be shattered. But when it came to my brother, they didn't seem to know or care that their course of their secret action brought the kind of devastation that could cut them. Their fraudulent marriage and our father's denial of his other son was for Chris a murder of every day's truth. He felt his whole life turned like a river suddenly reversing the direction of its flow. Suddenly running uphill. These revelations struck at the core of Chris's sense of identity. They made his entire childhood seem like fiction. Chris never told them he knew and made me promise silence as well. "

This quote gives a fair description why Chris had enough reason to hate his parents and chose to leave them and why — more than anything — he yearned for truth and justice, values that were rare commodities around Chris’ parents. Indeed Chris’ flight may be interpreted as a way for him to take revenge on his parents for having lived a lie for so many years.

"With almost a year having passed since Chris' disappearance my parents' anger had turned to desperation. Their guilt was giving way to pain. And pain seemed to bring them closer. Even their faces had changed. She convinces herself it's Chris, that's her son whenever she passes a stray. And I fear for the mother in her. Instincts that seem to sense the threat of a loss so huge and irrevocable that the mind balks at taking its measure. I had begin to wonder if I can understand that Chris' saying any longer. But I catch myself and remember that these are not the parents I grew up with. That people softened by the forced reflection that comes with loss. Still everything Chris' saying has to be said. And I trust that everything he is doing, has to be done. This is our life."

The parents realize the gravity of the result of their dishonest and deceitful past actions and decisions. It is not a stretch to say that they have let their selfishness and myopia get to the point so as to cause their son to leave in disgust. Now they regrettably reap the harvest of their bitter seeds.

"Do your folks know where you are?"

No they don’t. Chris explicitly chose to not be found and chose to not be in touch with his parents or even his sister. If mere wanderlust would be his prime motivator then surely every once in a while he could have picked up the phone and give a quick ring to home to let his parents and sister know his whereabouts. If he had known enough love for his parents then surely he would have wanted to save them the agony of not knowing where he was all the time?

"A year and a half had passed in what dad called 'suspended animation.' The weight of Chris' disappearance had began to lay down on me full length. "

"Happiness is only real when shared."

Here he is, all by himself and with no hope for relief, having this ironic but no less true epiphany at the final hours of his tormented life. All this suffering that he and his family experienced could have been prevented if only his father had had the courage to admit to his son of having made wrong choices earlier in life and that he was not as infallible as he liked himself to be. Oh woe be upon the wretched ego of man! He himself could have prevented how his son would rise to hate the life of hypocrisy he and Chris’ mother chose to live. He could have easily have replaced Chris’ feelings of disgust and hate with respect and love. If he had had the courage to treat his son respectfully and honestly he might just have gotten a son who — in return — would have considered himself worthy of love.

In spite of all the spiritual hardship he went through and in spite of the knowledge that his end is near and unavoidable, Chris chooses to forgive his parents and show appreciation for the lessons he gained in life, most notably perhaps during its final stages.

To me the meaning of the movie or ‘moral of the story’, is that fear, shame and guilt are profound obstacles in the way of honest, truthful and indeed loving relationships. Whether Krakauer or Penn had it in mind or not, the movie can easily be interpreted as a critical address to society, or ‘sick society’ as Chris would have called it.

Interview of Sean Penn and Eddie Vedder by Charlie Rose (6 parts on Youtube):

Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt1
Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt2
Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt3
Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt4
Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt5
Charlie Rose – A discussion about the film Into the Wild pt6

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