AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Into the Wild
Director: Sean Penn (Dir)
Release Date:   Oct 2007
Duration (in mins):  147 or 149-150
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Cast: Emile Hirsch  (Chris[topher Johnson] McCandless [also known as Alexander Supertramp])
  Marcia Gay Harden  (Billie McCandless)
  William Hurt  (Walt McCandless)
 

Summary: In the spring of 1992, twenty-four-year-old Christopher Johnson McCandless arrives in Fairbanks, Alaska at the culmination of a two-year-long journey. Believing that he is following in the spiritual footsteps of his literary heroes—Tolstoy, Thoreau and London--who extol a life lived outside traditional societal structures, Chris walks into the snow-covered mountains near Mount Denali carrying few supplies, intending to live off the land for a few months. He leaves a red knitted cap to mark the point at which he crosses a stream and establishes a camp. As he explores, he discovers a derelict city bus that was brought into the bush years earlier. Inside, he finds a bunk, woodstove and other amenities left there by the hunters who previously used the vehicle, which he dubs the “magic bus.” After cleaning his new home, Chris carves a manifesto stating that his current odyssey will conclude the spiritual revolution he has undertaken for the last two years and signs it “Alexander Supertramp,” the name under which he has been traveling, and dates it May 1992. Two years earlier in 1990, Chris graduates from Atlanta’s Emory University. After the ceremony, he joins his conservative, controlling father Walt, his brow-beaten mother Billie and his empathetic sister Carine for dinner. When Chris mentions that he has a chance to go to Harvard Law, his parents offer to buy him a new car, but Chris, who scorns their materialism, replies that he is happy with his old Datsun. Without informing his family, Chris leaves his apartment in Atlanta, divests himself of his former life by donating his savings to charity and destroying his driver’s license and Social Security card, then drives West in his Datsun seeking “absolute freedom.” Failing to notice a flash flood sign, Chris parks his car in a flood zone in the Arizona desert and after a sudden torrent disables his car, removes the license plates, burns his remaining cash and sets out on foot. Several months later, at Lake Meade, Arizona, Chris christens himself Alexander Supertramp. By the end of the month, having had no communication from Chris, the worried Walt and Billie drive to Atlanta and discover that Chris had vacated his apartment two months earlier. Later that summer, the hitchhiking Chris is picked up in Northern California by Jan Burres and her boyfriend Rainey, middle-aged hippies who travel in their R.V. and sell used goods at swap meets. Rainey and Jan become very fond of Chris, and one afternoon, Rainey confides to Chris that something in Jan’s past made her withdraw from him, but since Chris’s arrival, she has begun to talk about what is troubling her. Chris, who had withdrawn from human intimacy as a result of the turbulent, abusive relationship of his parents, can relate to Jan’s reticence. Soon after, Chris, believing it is important to measure yourself in the most primitive conditions, with nothing to aid you but your head and hands, leaves the comfort of Jan and Rainey’s company. By early fall, Chris is in Carthage, South Dakota working for Wayne Westerberg, a hard-drinking grain operator elevator, who, with his crew, harvests and sells crops. Wayne befriends Chris, but when he questions him about his drive to lead a solitary life in the wild, Chris declares that he wants to escape a society populated by abusive parents, hypocrites and opportunistic politicians. Wayne remarks that Chris may be too young to truly understand those issues. One day, the F.B.I. arrives unexpectedly to arrest Wayne, ending Chris’s idyll in Carthage and sending him on his way to Alaska. Meanwhile, at the McCandless home, Carine reminisces about how deeply wounded Chris was to learn that his father was married to another woman when he was born, permanently damaging his trust in his parents. With his wages from his job in Carthage, Chris buys a kayak and successfully navigates the rapids of the Colorado River despite his lack of experience. After the river winds into the Grand Canyon, Chris decides to paddle to Mexico, where he loses his kayak in a sandstorm at the Sea of Cortez. In early 1991, Chris tries to reenter the United States, but is stopped at the Mexican border because he has no identification. He then hops a freight train to Los Angeles where, overwhelmed by the bustle of civilization, Chris soon flees after witnessing the disparity between homeless wanderers and wealthy diners, especially when he can easily imagine himself as one of the privileged. Meanwhile, at home, Carine muses that her parents’ desperation over the loss of Chris has brought them closer together. In late Dec 1991, Chris runs into Jan and Rainey again at a makeshift camp in Slab City, California. There, as he waits for the paycheck from his last job, Chris trains to get into condition for the physically demanding trip to the Alaskan wilds. He also meets sixteen-year-old singer Tracy Tatro, who develops a crush on him. One night, after Jan reveals to Chris that as a teenager, she gave birth to a son, from whom she is now estranged, she encourages Chris to contact his family, but he refuses. On Christmas day, Tracy offers to have sex with Chris, but he gently demurs, stating that she is too young. Soon after, Chris says goodbye to Rainey and Tracy and gets a ride into town with Jan, who gives him a red knitted cap. In Jan 1992, Chris is camping in the Anza Borrego Desert when he meets octogenarian Ron Franz at a gas station. Ron gives Chris a ride to his tent, and when he asks why Chris wants to live in the dirt, Chris replies that the concept of a career is a 20th-century invention that he does not respect, and that he has chosen to live close to nature. When Ron inquires about his family, Chris states that he does not have one. Over the next few months, Ron, who has lived alone since his wife and son were killed in 1957, develops a paternal relationship with Chris, whom he teaches to work leather. With his newly learned skills, Chris engraves a leather belt with the story of his journey across the country. One day, in late March, Chris tells Ron that although he will miss him, joy does not come principally from human relationships. Sensing that Chris is about to leave, Ron offers to drive him to the highway. On the way, Ron asks Chris if he can adopt him as a grandson, but Chris gently rebuffs him by asking if they can discuss it when he returns. Soon after, Chris reaches Fairbanks and finds the magic bus. Nine weeks later, Chris is reading a passage from Tolstoy about happiness. Tolstoy states that to attain happiness, one needs a quiet secluded life in the country, love for one’s neighbor and on top of all that, a family. Realizing that he has achieved his goal, Chris decides to return home, but when he treks to his marker, he discovers that the stream has swollen to a river and cannot be forged. Trapped, Chris returns to the bus, where he writes in his journal that he is lonely and scared. In late summer 1992, the now starving Chris bemoans the lack of game and carves more notches to tighten the leather belt he made under Ron’s tutelage. Desperate for food, Chris forages with guidance from a book about local fauna. Falling seriously ill after eating one plant, Chris examines the book and discovers that he has been poisoned and may die. Dangerously weak, Chris cries as he writes “Happiness only real when shared” inside one of his books. After placing a poster stating that he has had a happy life, signed with his real name, in front of the bus, Chris painfully settles onto his bunk. As he dies, Chris gazes at the brilliant sky and imagines himself returning home, smiling and running into his parents’ arms. 

Distribution Company: Paramount Vantage
Production Company: Paramount Vantage
River Road Entertainment, LLC
Square One C.I.H.
Linson Films
Director: Sean Penn (Dir)
  David Webb (1st asst dir)
  Dylan Hopkins (2d asst dir)
  John R. Saunders (2d 2d asst dir)
  Ian Calip (2d 2d asst dir)
Producer: Sean Penn (Prod)
  Art Linson (Prod)
  Bill Pohlad (Prod)
  John J. Kelly (Exec prod)
  Frank Hildebrand (Exec prod)
  David Blocker (Exec prod)
Writer: Sean Penn (Scr)
  Sharon Olds (Addl narr)
  Carine McCandless (Addl narr)
  Jena Malone (Addl narr)

Subject Major: Alaska
  Family relationships
  Friendship
  Idealists
  Obsession
  Voyages and travel
 
Subject Minor: Accidental death
  Aged men
  Battered children
  Books
  Buses
  College students
  Conformity
  Deserts
  Drunkenness
  Emory University (Atlanta, GA)
  Generation gap
  Hippies
  Hitchhiking
  Kayaks
  Letters
  Jack London
  Loneliness
  Lure of the primitive
  Materialism
  Meat
  Mexican-American border region
  Missing persons
  Money
  Rapids
  Starvation
  Henry David Thoreau
  Leo Tolstoy
  Wild animals

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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