Probably some of the strangest footage I've ever seen on film is Warner Herzog's Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell, animal rights activists and naturists who after spending 13 summers in Alaska with the Grizzly Bears, got a little too comfortable and was eaten by a bear.
While the story of Christopher McCandless' story as told in Into The Wild is different than Treadwell's stories, on the outside it has some marked similarities, namely death in the Alaskan wild.
Yet, Timothy Treadwell is simply a challenging person and as Herzog edits through hours of footage a very strange, daring, perhaps even stupid or psychotic character emerges. The beginning of Into The Wild is set up in a way that feels all too similar to Grizzly Man, especially with the knowledge of it's inevitable ending.
Yet, as the story takes shape a deeper level of humanity is breathed into the story that is harder to find in the story of Treadwell.
While Emile Hirsch as the real life Christopher McCandless has his redemable moments, it is really the supporting characters that draw out the humanity in McCandless.
I attribute the humanity that comes forth in this story to two performances.
The first most noted recognized performance is that of Hal Holbrook who plays Ron Franz in the academy award nominated role.
Holbrook is so impressive in this role, and the role is one that can resonate with so many people, the story of a man who has lived a life, made some mistakes, and ultimately professes the power of Christ, forgiveness, and love. And he wants McCandless to have all these things, and essentially be the father (or grandfather) McCandless never had. Every moment of screen time that McCandless and Holbrook have together is cinematic gold.
The second important performance, that really struck a cord with me was the performance by Jena Malone as Carine, Chris' younger sister -- the narrator who really pulls the story together and helps the viewer understand that real Chris. The part is written with such a deep humanity that carries the film and makes it complete and Malone is perfect in bringing every line to life.
When you watch Grizzly Man and "the death moment" draws closer, you feel uncomfortable, because you can't even understand how Treadwell has survived so long and you see his mental state getting worse and the threshold for danger increasing.
Into the Wild paints a different picture of McCandless. First of all, he's generally satisfied with the present, and most people he encounters. His desire to get away is built upon a hatred of his parents and on the concepts of unkind people caught in a social whirlwind. Yet it does seem like he treasures the relationships he forms with everyone in this film. Christopher is satisfied to befriend anyone that will allow him to befriend him.
In the end we see him writing things in his journal about being scared and lonely. Perhaps McCandless was ready to forgive, and had accomplished the task before him, proving to himself that he could do it, as well as learning what he could not.
Without these various elements of humanity, shown through McCandless interactions with people along his journey, his sister's narration, and the realizations in his time in the Alaskan wilderness this story would hardly pack a punch, it was just be the bio-pic of a strange man.
Yet, Into the Wild, despite it's unrelatable central character, suddenly becomes incredibly relatable to a world that sometimes does feel isolated, angry, and misunderstood. It is this layer of humanity embedded in the film that makes Into The Wild a successful film.