The cost of being free

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.

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3 Responses to “The cost of being free”


  1. 1 poetloverrebelspy April 24, 2008 at 3:29 AM

    THIS COMMENT CONTAINS A SPOILER WARNING

    I have been thinking about this movie ever since I saw it two weeks ago, largely because I read reviews of it before seeing it but never caught on that he was going to die. I assumed that, since it was based on a book and a true story, that Chris himself had written it — and went into the movie thinking this was an adventure, a journey, a follow-your-dreams type of tale. You have to laugh, imagining me in the theater near the end of the film, wondering how he’s going to get out of this hole he’s dug himself into. The answer: he’s not. I’ve had to rewrite the message from one of “following your dreams will kill you.” It just goes to show how one’s own expectations play an important role in interpretation.

    Perhaps because I grew up closer to nature than Chris, I can’t divorce the many mistakes he made in Alaska (and his very idolatry of the state as archetypical WILD) from the lessons he learns at the end of his journey. Though he spends half a year “preparing” for his trip, he sets out at the end of winter without proper gear and with very little food. He hasn’t read one thing on the area or its customs. His knowledge of wilderness survival comes from his own, warm-weather experience and that of a co-worker in South Dakota — the tragedy of which is reached when the moose is killed and he is unprepared. In fact, if he hadn’t found the bus (and it appears the irony of living in a remnant of civilization is lost on him), there is little chance he would have made it nearly 80 days before wanting to go back.

    The folly of the river is heightened by the knowledge (thanks Wikipedia!) that less than 1/4 mile from his attempted crossing point was a hand-crank tram he could have used to get across. Forgetting the argument that he should have had a map, so little did he explore the territory that he didn’t know it was there? Someone who spent months kayaking a river might follow its path to see if there weren’t a rocky or narrow point where crossing might be possible. Perhaps he could have fashioned a raft to get across? It’s as if he has lost all problem-solving skills at this stage.

    So when he finally becomes receptive to the messages of his novels and friends, it is too late to put them into action. The movie suggests he learns to forgive his parents, yet what of his parents? A month after his death — over two years after their son has disappeared without a trace — they receive the news that they most feared. Worse yet, he was fully responsible for his own demise. He learns (quite selfishly) the lesson of the old man, yet does not learn that of consideration from the hippie woman whose own son has gone missing without a trace. His demise leaves us to wonder where it is he would have sought his “happiness shared.”

    While Chris is portrayed quite sympathetically and I didn’t leave the movie hating him or his journey, it is his selfishness (in following his own “dream,” blind to the heartbreak of others) and folly (in executing his “dream” ill-preparedly, again without regard to others) that now resonate with me. Others may equate that with naivete or youth. Even now, I continue to be haunted by both the theme music and many of the film’s images — surprisingly perhaps, the depravity of the South Dakota bar as much as the serene wilderness. It is a movie I would recommend, and one I would like to see again, though you could spare me the atrocious title graphics . . . I think they hired a 14-year-old with Pagemaker to put those together!

  2. 2 goodreadings April 24, 2008 at 12:42 PM

    Even as someone who didn’t grow up any closer to nature than Chris did, I was stunned by how little he did to make preparations for the Alaskan phase of his adventures. If he’d just asked almost anyone who lived anywhere near the area of his retreat, they could have given him information to save his life. I’m sure that almost any local could have told him that the level of the river would change, or that there were ways he could cross it other than wading right into it.

    I definitely agree about the title graphics. At the beginning, they had me worried about the movie’s visual aesthetics in general. Though fortunately Penn very quickly gave us some of those gorgeous wilderness shots.

  3. 3 patrick May 1, 2008 at 12:47 PM

    McCandless’s story is tragic, but then so many people have benefited from hearing it… a couple of years of hitchhiking led to his story challenging thousands (millions?) of people to reexamine their lives


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