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Sean Penn’s: Into the Wild, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 759

Essay

Director Sean Penn’s 2007 film, Into the Wild, presents what looks to be one, dominant theme.  The hero of the story, Christopher McCandless, leaves his family and civilization behind in a quest to separate himself from normal living and society. On the surface, then, the theme is one of a fierce independence and a rejection of modern values.  McCandless, as a young man graduating college, makes his determination very clear.   He destroys his credit cards and identification, and he gives his money to charity.  These actions, early in the film, powerfully support the main theme.  What he does is a reaction to what he sees as a hopeless trap waiting for him in his adult life: “Our confusion, the ambiguity of our values, comes from the strange, unreal world of mass culture” (Niedzviecki  27), and he wants to escape.   The theme is established as an ultimate defiance of everything society values, and is even more supported by the choice McCandless makes in leaving in secrecy. His family and friends do not know what he is doing, or where he has gone to.

As the movie develops, however, two other themes become plain. These secondary themes cannot develop until the story develops; then, as they do, they take on greater meaning than the original one.   The first of these, which runs as an increasingly important thread, is that trusting to  nature is an extremely difficult, and often dangerous, choice. McCandless is clearly idealistic, and so urged on by his hatred of materialism and society that he goes on his way in ignorance.  He does not really know how to survive without the basic comforts of society, although his determination sees him through.   It is not, however, easy.   McCandless must resort to digging up roots for food. Then, and as a powerful metaphor, his decision to return home late in the film is blocked by nature itself, as the stream he had once crossed is now impassable. Ironically, the hero’s situation is exactly the same as Niedzviecki refers to that of enjoying, and becoming dependent on, modern comforts: “But such dedication to having what you want the way you want  it can turn ugly” (21).  This theme of the film illustrates that man is faced with struggle, no matter what choices he makes.

Lastly, a third theme comes to dominate the movie. Having been isolated for long periods of time, McCandless nevertheless has sustained relationships with people he encounters in his journey to a completely free and natural life. It seems as though he is conflicted.  He is set on his purpose, but he still becomes close to these people, especially the old leather worker, Ron Franz, he meets up with while going through California.  The men become friends, and Franz tries to discourage McCandless from leaving, to fulfill his dream of a free life in the Alaskan wild. It is never overtly stated in the film, but the impression is that the older man understands something McCandless is not yet able to:  no matter how badly society corrupts the ways we live, we still require human contact. McCandless goes on his way to Alaska where, trapped by the nature he pursued as the key to his freedom, he is faced with desperate conditions and a loneliness as powerful as the urge he once had to leave the world behind.

In a very real sense, it may be that McCandless has come to see that his ambition to be completely free was nothing more than another idea promoted by the society he thought he was escaping, that of the “rugged individualist” (Niedzviecki  30).    If we are fooled by modern society into believing that, within the society, we can be completely independent individuals, the greater reality is that we fool ourselves into thinking that we can do without some kind of contact.  It is implied in the movie, certainly, that McCandless is desperate for others because he is in danger of dying.   However, there is also a strong sense that isolation itself is killing him.   This theme, that the choice to be totally free, reveals that such freedom may be an impossible goal for the social animal that a man is.

Works Cited

Into the Wild.  Dir. Sean Penn. Perf.  Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook.   Paramount, 2007. Film.

Niedzviecki, H.  “’This Sucks’! Change it!’: Toward a Lifestyle Culture.”  We Want Some Too. New York:  Penguin Group, 2000,  pp. 19-51.

Niedzvieki, H.  “Hello, I’m Special: The Rise of Nonconformity.”  Hello, I’m  Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity.  San Francisco: City Lights Books,  2006,  pp. 3-31.

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