Into The Wild: A Quarterlife Crisis
By Jeff Milone · March 20, 2008
I expected I would like this movie. A middle class twentysomething college graduate, dissatisfied with life, abandons his possessions, and hitchhikes his way to Alaska to live in the wilderness. And it’s a true story. Sign me up.
The main character is Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch. After a brief preamble, he embarks on his journey with the only goal being – reach Alaska. As an audience, we are quickly made aware that he will eventually make it there, as the film often “flashes forward” to a parallel narrative of his experiences living in the Alaskan wilderness.
Right off the bat, there are moments that are shockingly real. The graduation ceremony with so many students, you can’t even see who’s who. The celebratory family dinner interrupted by noisy college kids. The subtle passive-aggressive comments from the parents.
As the film unfolds, Chris’s expedition across America is peppered with experiences and encounters that teach us more about him, and why he is making his quest. It quickly becomes evident that the primary motive behind Chris’s break from civilized society stems from disillusion with his parents.
While a lot of quarterlifers have a conflicted relationship with their parents, Chris’s boarders on militant. He blames them for placing too much value on material things, for “living a lie,” and for influencing him to do the same. It’s an issue that never really gets resolved. The audience is left wondering where all the hostility comes from – perhaps more accurately, why he can’t let go of it, and how he could put his parents though the hell of losing their son to this journey.
I am thankful for the sister’s narration which is injected throughout the film, and serves as a voice for Chris’s family. Through her monologues, we learn that while Chris is undergoing “rebirth,” his family is struggling to understand why he disappeared. Their lives are torn apart as they wonder what went wrong. As a viewer, I found myself asking the same questions.
Chris’s motives are only lightly questioned over the course of the film, until he befriends an old man in Arizona who asks a few of the tough questions the audience is undoubtedly wondering about. Despite his efforts during some of the film’s most powerful scenes, the questions remain unanswered.
Here is where many people have difficulty with the film. We have a good-looking young man from a financially stable family. He graduated from a good college, and would seem to have every option in life. His parents even offer to buy him a new car as a graduation present. He rejects the car as well as all of the options his education and upbringing afford him. He then proceeds to shun his parents and society as a whole.
Some viewers draw the line here – perhaps labeling Chris as a cry-baby who is selfish for making his journey and ignoring those who love him. That thinking is certainly understandable. I found myself feeling the same way about him. His parents, however misguided, love him. What could be so important, that it’s worth hurting them so deeply? Then I watched the film a second time.
I began to realize that I wanted Chris’s story to fit neatly into my expectations. My problem with Chris as a character was that I wanted to see his inner struggle. Lines like “I don’t want any more things” (when his parents were going to give him a car), didn’t cut it. Where is this pain, this driving force that is making him take such drastic measures? As I watched the film again, I slowly understood that the pain was there. Not a simple outward pain that is easily seen on the surface, but a deep, primal pain that can’t really be expressed.
And then it hit me – that pain is the very essence of the Quarterlife Crisis. It involves introspection so profound, that it’s often inexplicable, even to the person to whom it’s happening. And the crisis is nearly impossible for others on the outside to make sense of, because it’s almost always masked in the very thing which causes it – stability.
Like Chris, many of us are now growing up in an age where our basic needs are being met at a rate never before seen. It’s in our parent’s nature to provide their children with the best environment possible, so we often grow up having never experienced struggle. But, that’s a double edged sword – a sharp one. Being raised in a stable household affords children freedom from worry – worry about having food to eat, a roof over their head, parents to take care of them, etc. They never have to ask themselves questions like, “how will I make a living” or “what should I do with my life?”
Many of us now go right to college after high school, thereby delaying the questions even further. Why don’t we ask ourselves these questions? Because we don’t have to. Why don’t we have to? Because struggle hasn’t forced us to. That’s the message that Into The Wild teaches. Struggle forces us to take action, and those actions are what define who we are.
In the film, it is that instinct that drives Chris to strip away all the pieces of his life, go into the wilderness and take part in the primal struggle of life and death – to rebuild himself from the simplest possible beginnings.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” – Henry David Thoreau