Sean Penn’s Into the Wild can boast of many arrestingly gorgeous shots of animals and natural spaces, as well as a host of fine performances from a strong supporting cast. But the film’s greatest strength is in the depth of its understanding of its central figure, Chris McCandless. The surface story of Chris’s life—that of a naive young man who ventures out into the wilderness on his own in search of freedom and self-discovery, and in the end becomes a victim of nature’s merciless forces—would have provided adequate fodder for a film on its own. But Into the Wild teases out a richer story than this by casting Chris’s fate not as a matter of a man’s foolishness in trying to take on nature, but instead about the pains and rewards of human love and relationships, and the great price exacted when someone turns his back on family and civilization.
In Penn’s movie, McCandless is a smart young man who can’t contain his energy and his hunger for life. As he wanders on his own through Alaska, Arizona, and down the Rio Grande, he charms nearly everyone he meets: people fall in love with him for his intelligence and drive, and also for his wild idealism. They see parts of themselves in him—most often, the idealism, restlessness, energy and hope that have long since been beaten out of them by experience and age. They seem to draw vitality from him, and love being around him, feeding off of his boundless enthusiasm and uncontained desire for making life an adventure. Chris spends a few days or weeks with a number of these people in turn—but each time when he leaves them, he seems to have no idea that by doing so he is causing them considerable pain. Again and again, Penn gives us long shots capturing the misery and heartbreak suffered by the would-be mothers, fathers, siblings, and lovers who’ve freely and joyfully taken Chris into their lives.
When Chris dies alone in Alaska, it’s not because he failed to match up to nature; instead, it’s because he failed to find a way to connect with other human beings. The movie doesn’t offer a rosy vision of humanity or of family life—it’s easily understandable why Chris would want to flee from his bitter and hateful parents, and it’s hard not to get caught up in Chris’s desire to slip the stultifying bonds of a conventional modern life. The film is not by any means singing the praises of civilization over the wilderness. Instead, the idea here is that love is better than loneliness, especially when you have to stand up to the blows raining down on you from nature, culture, and other people. Whether you’re living in the Alaskan wilderness or a tidy suburb, you’re going to need help in order to be able to face what life will bring.