Judge Clark Douglas once determined to take a trip into the wild. He returned within six hours, complaining about poison ivy and rabid squirrels.
Our review of Into The Wild (Blu-Ray), published December 16th, 2008, is also available.
"When you want something in life, you just gotta reach out and grab it."—Christopher McCandless
"I read somewhere…how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong…but to feel strong."—Christopher McCandless again
Facts of the Case
Sean Penn's Into the Wild (based on the best-selling novel by Jon Krakauer) is the story of an idealistic dreamer named Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch, Alpha Dog). How does one go about explaining Christopher's life? He was raised in an atmosphere of privilege by well-to-do parents (William Hurt, The Accidental Tourist, and Marcia Gay Harden, American Gun), he received a fine education at Emory University…and then he decided to leave this ordinary life behind and go on a journey though the most savage and beautiful parts of nature in America.
Along the way to his ultimate goal of going to the Alaskan wilderness, Christopher meets and interacts with various individuals: A hippie couple (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich, and Brian Dierker), a hard-working combine driver (Vince Vaughn, Swingers), a young singer (Kristen Stewart, Fierce People), and a skeptical old man (Hal Holbrook, The Majestic) are among the most memorable. Chris has a certain magnetic effect on all of them. Everyone finds Chris fascinating and likable, and yet they all seem a little bit concerned about the sheer foolhardiness of his journey. Indeed, Christopher McCandless is not able to survive his trip Into the Wild. Does Sean Penn view this tragic young man as a fool, a hero, or both? Let's examine the evidence.
In Werner Herzog's remarkable documentary Grizzly Man, we followed the life of Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell was a man who fell in love with bears, but lost his life when he decided to cross the boundaries of nature. Into the Wild is similar, in that it follows the life of a man who fell in love with the feeling of freedom that being in the middle of nature offered. Christopher McCandless also lost his life when he decided to cross the boundaries of nature. But while Herzog viewed the subject of his film with an ominous and sad cynicism, Penn views the subject of Into the Wild with rather fierce admiration.
Yes, McCandless' journey is something that many of us can probably identify with. Who doesn't find the idea of leaving our crowded, busy, complicated, headache-inducing society for the freedom of a more primitive and simple life slightly appealing? There are undoubtedly times when most of us want to just get away from it all, leave everyone and everything we know, and just start over again in a new setting. However, most of us don't do this, and for a very good reason. There's something inside us that suggests that we would probably only hurt ourselves and others by doing this. Christopher McCandless was either not supplied with that inner voice, or he was able to ignore it and suppress it.
Personally, I see the story of Christopher McCandless as a great tragedy, a life that was cut short by poor choices and misguided idealism. Somehow I doubt that when McCandless was starving to death in freezing temperatures, he was smiling ecstatically and musing about what a glorious life he had lived. And yet, that is the romanticized portrait that Penn gives us. It feels artificial and dishonest, and tries much too hard to remove the emotional sting of McCandless' death. Was this done because Christopher's parents (who gave their blessing to the film) are still alive, trying to provide them with some sort of consolation?
The romantic death scene is by no means the only way in which Penn attempts to idolize McCandless. There are also three narrators who attempt to use as much poetic prose as possible in painting a grand portrait of this individual. We get narration from Chris' sister (Jena Malone, Pride and Prejudice), from Chris himself (taken from his writings), and worst of all, from singer Eddie Vedder. No, Vedder doesn't actually provide standard narration, but his songs are at least that explicit, spelling out things in a painfully obvious way that would have been far more powerful implied. Consider these lyrics:
I think I need to find a bigger place
Or how about these…
Have no fear
This keeps happening throughout the entire film. Penn will put together a beautiful montage that begins to inspire complex thoughts in the viewer, and then Vedder starts warbling, telling everybody what exactly is going on inside Christopher's head, and what we should be thinking about what he is thinking. Sadly, it seems that Penn intended it this way from the very start. During one of the making-of featurettes, he claims that he filmed certain sequences with the intention of having songs play over them that would describe what was going on. It's a real shame that he couldn't trust his audience more; the film would have had so much more power if he had taken an ambiguous approach to the material. Undoubtedly, some would reach the same conclusions about McCandless that Penn has, and some would reach the conclusions that I did, but the audience deserves the right to make up their own mind on the matter. Penn keeps force-feeding us his viewpoint, and while the choir he is preaching to will applaud (and they have been), viewers who see the story from a different perspective will be annoyed.
Speaking of those making-of featurettes, there are only two of them, and that is all that is included on this two-disc collector's edition DVD. The first one is called "The Story, The Characters," and it runs about 20 minutes. It is exactly what it sounds like, a discussion of the story and the characters. The other is called "The Experience," which goes into some of the more technical aspects of making the film. It runs 17 minutes. Plus, there's a trailer. So, that's 37 minutes of special features on a two-disc collector's edition DVD. The film is a bit long, but they probably could have fit all this onto one disc. There's no commentary on disc one, no documentary on the real Christopher McCandless, just the two featurettes. This might be worthy of praise if it were still 1996, but it isn't. This is easily one of the skimpiest two-disc collector's editions I have seen in recent years, a real disappointment.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Things aren't all bad here. Penn is a very talented director, and when he isn't preaching, he puts together some very effective and memorable moments. I'm particularly fond of the scenes featuring Chris' interaction with other people. You might think that an explorer like Chris would shun society completely, but he seems to enjoy the company of others…as long as they're not his parents or old friends. Thanks to very strong casting, these sequences are very engaging.
Penn puts together a really lovely mix of well-regarded professionals and complete unknowns. Catherine Keener, a highly acclaimed actress, and Brian Dierker, who is giving his first film performance, are a perfect example of this, and they complement each other beautifully in a handful of scenes. Keener has the acting chops to pull off key moments of emotion, while Dierker brings a real-life authenticity to his role. Vince Vaughn is good playing against type in his small part, while William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden make the most of small, fragmented scenes. Hal Holbrook's Oscar nomination was well deserved: he make a huge impact in his few scenes, bringing an unpretentious honesty to the movie that serves as a breath of fresh air during the final act. Perhaps most impressively, Emile Hirsch proves that he can really carry a movie with a deeply felt performance that rings true. This is a really superb acting turn that easily ranks as the best thing Hirsch has done to date.
The film is lovely to look at, too. There were a lot of films with strong cinematography in 2007, and Into the Wild ranks among the best. Eric Gautier (A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints) has done some excellent work, very effectively taking us (yep, it's coming) Into the Wild. The DVD transfer is very strong, nicely showcasing Gautier's work, and the sound very beautifully accentuates all those annoying Eddie Vedder songs.
Sean Penn continues to prove that he is a very capable director with a lot of ambition, and he continues to frustrate by pushing his points so adamantly. Admittedly, he isn't quite as forceful this time as he has been in previous films, but it's still too much for me. If you watched Grizzly Man and thought that Herzog was being much too hard on Timothy Treadwell, this is probably something that you will greatly appreciate. There are some excellent performances here, and it's a very good-looking film with a lot of qualities in a lot of different departments. But for me, the overall tone makes it difficult to recommend.
Sean Penn is to be commended for his passionate commitment to telling a story that deserved to be told, which is why the court is only going to sentence him to parole for taking such a one-sided approach. The cast is free to go. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Story, The Characters"
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