Paramount // 2007 // 148 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // December 16th, 2008
The core of man's spirit comes from new experiences.
"Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, 'cause the West is the best. And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the Great White North. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild." -- Alexander Supertramp, May 1992
After graduating from Emory University in 1990, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch, Speed Racer) donates his savings to charity, abandons his car, changes his name to Alexander Supertramp, and disappears into the wild. He doesn't tell his family that he's leaving. Once gone, he never sends them a letter or calls them on the telephone. McCandless' goal is an "Alaskan odyssey" that will separate him from civilized society and allow him to live in total freedom in the bush. In preparation, he moves through the deserts of Arizona, California, and South Dakota, working odd jobs and surviving on the land. During his journey, he meets a host of colorful characters who challenge his bleak view of human relationships -- farmer Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughan, Swingers); free-spirited aging hippies Jan (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich) and Rainey (first-time actor Brian H. Dierker); and kind but lonely retiree Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook, Creepshow).
In April of 1992, McCandless finally arrives at Stampede Trail in the Alaskan bush. He sets up his home in an abandoned bus, living off of roots and berries, small game, and a bag of rice he brought with him. By June, he decides to leave but finds that he's trapped by the Teklanika River, which had grown deeper and more dangerous to cross since his arrival. By August he's starving to death. Knowing that his prospects for survival are bleak, he scrawls a final message to his loved ones and humanity at large: "I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!"
One of the most appealing aspects of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild is the ambiguity with which it approaches its subject. Krakauer is suitably impressed with Christopher McCandless' willingness to live out his convictions, but is also repulsed by the young man's cruel treatment of his relatives and loved ones, and saddened by the senselessness of his death. According to many film critics, Sean Penn's feature film adaptation of Krakauer's book failed to capture any of this subtlety, instead lionizing McCandless as a philosophical idealist who gave his own life as a protest against the excesses of capitalism and industrialized society. Having missed the movie in theaters, I popped in this Blu-ray expecting Into the Wild to be beautifully filmed but reductive, naïve, and heavy-handed. I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that is at once heartfelt and frustrating (in a good way). I found myself both admiring McCandless and wishing he'd get his head out of his ass, which is precisely how I felt when I read Krakauer's book.
Being drama, films can't achieve the same sort of objective distance as a piece of reportage. Penn's movie provides a more intimate (and, yes, in some ways approving) portrait of the adventures of Alexander Supertramp. That said, the movie persistently calls McCandless' motives into question. The adult characters with whom he rubs elbows regularly challenge his self-indulgence, his immature idealism, and his disturbing cruelty towards his parents and sister -- and they do so from positions of intellectual and emotional authority. William Hurt's (The Incredible Hulk) and Marcia Gay Harden's (The Mist) performances as McCandless' mother and father begin as stereotypes of middle-class dysfunction but morph into keenly observed portraits of parental anguish as they contend first with the horror that their son is missing, and then with the wrenching truth that he has chosen to escape them without a phone call, letter, or other attempt at explanation. When McCandless observes of another character that "some people feel like they don't deserve love; they walk away quietly into empty spaces..." he is, of course, inadvertently describing himself. Later, Hal Holbrook's Mr. Franz attempts to explain to him that the only way he can find the freedom he seeks is through forgiving his parents. But the message is lost on the young man. He tells Franz that he's wrong to think the joy of life comes from human relationships. And he persists with his flight into the wild. Only in the end, lonely, frightened, and on the verge of death, does McCandless realize that happiness is "only real when shared."
Like Krakauer's book, Penn's movie recognizes the vital spark of life in Christopher McCandless, the appealing verve and intelligence with which he threw himself into his endeavor. It does not, however, present him as a prescient critic of western civilization or the patron saint of simple living, as it has sometimes been accused. Instead, the McCandless of the film is a complex, likeable but stubborn young man whose naïve idealism propels him into a personal quest that is simultaneously admirable and wrong-headed, noble and senselessly tragic.
Given Into the Wild's spacious settings in Alaska, Lake Mead, and other untamed regions, there is no better home video format on which to view it than Blu-ray. The 1080p VC-1 transfer is near perfect. Detail is razor sharp right down to the wrinkles and pores on the actors' faces. Colors are perfectly accurate and fully saturated. Black levels are deep and supple, while the vast swaths of white snow sparkle. A touch of fine grain undisturbed by digital artifacts lends the presentation a celluloid appearance.
The Dolby TrueHD audio track is spacious and crystal clear. The film's soundtrack isn't showy, but the mix perfectly captures every nuance of dialogue, nature sound, and Eddie Vedder's acoustic guitar and ukulele score.
Unfortunately, the disc's extras are paltry. The BD contains the same pair of featurettes on the two-disc special edition DVD, plus a theatrical trailer. The featurettes run 20 and 17 minutes, respectively, and examine the film's story and characters, and its production. Both are worth watching once, though neither contains any earth-shattering revelations.
Having defended Penn from critical charges of reductionism, I have to admit that he avoids a series of facts that underscore the willful foolishness of McCandless' idealism. McCandless ignored the advice of a seasoned Alaskan and went into the bush without a compass, map, or other important supplies. Because of this stubborn insistence on eschewing all of the trappings of modern society, he starved to death even though his bus was a quarter-mile from a place where he could have safely crossed the Teklanika and made it back to civilization. There's nothing romantic about that.
Sean Penn's Into the Wild is a film full of visual and thematic poetry that offers a complex portrait of the self-contradictory and, therefore, all too human Christopher McCandless. The movie isn't as good as Krakauer's book, but it's still a gripping 148 minutes. Pitiful extras notwithstanding, the movie's Blu-ray presentation is gorgeous.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 148 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "The Story, The Characters"
* "The Experience"
* Theatrical Trailer