Into the Wild [Blu-Ray]
Director : Sean Penn
Screenplay : Sean Penn (based on the book by Jon Krakauer)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Emile Hirsch (Christopher McCandless), Marcia Gay Harden (Billie McCandless), William Hurt (Walt McCandless), Jena Malone (Carine McCandless), Brian Dierker (Rainey / Marine Coordinator), Catherine Keener (Jan Burres), Vince Vaughn (Wayne Westerberg), Kristen Stewart (Tracy), Hal Holbrook (Ron Franz)
Early in his career Sean Penn developed a reputation as an intense actor, one who relished and excelled at playing anguished, internally divided characters, a tendency that has also informed his work as a director. His first three films behind the camera, 1991’s The Indian Runner, 1995’s The Crossing Guard, and 2001’s The Pledge, revolve around driven, arguably obsessive characters whose raging determinations plunge them headfirst into tragedy. All three films are dark, tortured meditations on the emotionally violent conflict between desire and reality.
In this sense, it is not surprising that Penn was immediately drawn to Jon Krakauer’s 1996 book Into the Wild, which chronicles the true life story of Christopher McCandless, a 1990 graduate of Emory University who, filled with romantic yearnings and the prose of Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, Leo Tolstoy, and Lord Byron, gave his life savings to Oxfam, cut himself off completely from his dysfunctional upper-class family, and became a so-called “leather tramp,” wandering the country alone. The end of McCandless’s road was the middle of Denali National Park in Alaska where he starved to death inside a deserted bus after spending 16 weeks days in the wilderness alone. Some view him as a heroic visionary, a kid who turned his back on the shallow goals of material American culture and embraced a life truly lived; others see him as a spoiled, arrogant kid who died needlessly because he didn’t bother to bring a map before setting off on his Alaskan odyssey.
Penn clearly sees McCandless as the heroic visionary, and his film version of Krakauer’s book emphasizes this to the point of turning him into a saint. The darker views of obsession that colored his earlier films have been scorched away by his full-blown embrace of the “McCandless Phenomenon.” Using a fractured narrative structure, Penn alternates between scenes of McCandless during his ill-fated adventure in the 49th state, scenes of him trekking across the United States during the previous two years under the assumed named “Alexander Supertramp,” and various flashbacks of his life that help explain his wanderlust and his desire to get away from the family that, in his mind, had ruined him. Those who want to see McCandless as an arrogant brat will find plenty of material to fuel their argument, but Penn clearly wants us to see his brash decision to desert normal life as something more than a knee-jerk reaction to mommy and daddy issues.
McCandless is embodied by 22-year-old Emile Hirsch, who followed the Robert De Niro / Tom Hanks / Christian Bale School of Method Acting in pushing his body to physical extremes by losing dangerous amounts of weight to depict a young man who lived on the road for two years. Hirsch gives a fine performance, although he is somewhat hampered by Penn’s infatuation with the character, which results in his having to play McCandless as an unproblematic Christ figure, full of romanticism and an almost impossibly sunny, saint-like disposition. Didn’t he ever get frustrated in all those months on the road? Was he ever scared or in any way doubtful that he had made the right decision? If he did, Penn doesn’t really show us. Instead, the closest we get is a sequence during his Alaskan sojourn when his shoots and kills a moose, but the 1,500 pounds of meat go to waste because of his failed attempt to preserve it by smoking. McCandless is deeply distraught at this loss, but the sequence works primarily to show his sensitivity and emotional connection to the wilderness around him, rather than his recklessness.
Much of McCandless’s emotional background is filled in by his younger sister, Carine (Jena Malone), who explains in voice-over narration crucial information about his childhood and upbringing. McCandless’s real-life family signed off on the film and are given special thanks at the top of the end credits, which is quite surprising given their treatment in the film. As played by William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden, they are a middle-class nightmare of hypocrisy and emotional abuse (the father is also portrayed as being physically abusive toward the mother). It’s hard not to sympathize with McCandless’s desire to get away from them, and when Penn shows them worrying about his unexplained disappearance, it comes off like crocodile tears--something that is required of them lest the neighbors think they don’t love their son. There are hints of redemption for them at the end, but it’s too little too late.
Most of the film’s screen time follows McCandless on his wandering journey, which is measured in chapters of growth (birth, adolescence, manhood, and the gaining of wisdom) and is marked by his interactions with various people he meets and inevitably touches along the way. First there is a hippie couple (Catherine Keener and Brian Dierker) whose silent wounds are healed by McCandless’s presence, and then there’s Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), a wheat farmer who hires McCandless for a season and becomes one of his best friends. Most touching, though, is McCandless’s relationship with Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an elderly widower who is one of the last people McCandless had contact with before setting off for Alaska. Having lived much of his adult life alone, Franz is like a tragic, inverse image of McCandless, his life cordoned off and limited by his decisions not to explore the world around him. During their last moments together Franz tenderly asks McCandless if he could adopt him in order to maintain the legacy of his family name, but Penn clearly sees the would-be adopted son as the true father figure.
While Penn certainly over-romanticizes McCandless to the point that his horrible death by starvation alone in the wilderness is transformed into an admittedly moving moment of spiritual ecstasy, Into the Wild is still a frequently powerful film even for those who don’t buy completely into this worldview. The beauty of the cinematography by Eric Gautier (The Motorcycle Diaries) captures the world in a way that conveys its mesmerizing hold over McCandless’s imagination, helping us to slip into his mindset and see past criticisms of his actions and realize that he saw the world in a way that was unencumbered by social expectations and the pressures of so-called “normality.” Whether it be the raging Colorado River, a South Dakota wheat farm, the great Alaskan wilderness, or a deserted military base turned into a hippie commune, the world was Christopher McCandless’s playground, and while his death may have been avoidable with some simple, common-sense precautions, whatever tragedy it may represent is arguably redeemed by his successful bid to live life on his own terms.
|Into the Wild Blu-Ray|
|Subtitles||English, French, Spanish, Portuguese|
|Distributor||Paramount Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||December 16, 2008|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|While Into the Wild looked absolutely beautiful on DVD, the true high-definition 1080p image on this Blu-Ray disc is even better. The ravishing images of nature in the raw by cinematographer Eric Gautier are superb, maintaining the same strong and natural color saturation and solid blacks found on the DVD, but with even more stunning detail, even in even the widest of shots (of which there are many). The film has a greatly varied visual palette, with scenes taking place in golden wheat fields, in lush green forests, and in dark areas of urban decay, and all of them look great. The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 surround soundtrack is also a boost over the DVD, with the surround speakers giving space and depth to Eddie Vedder’s songs and also enveloping us in the natural world that so captivated Christopher McCandless’s imagination.|
|Unfortunately, the Blu-Ray disc does not improve at all in the supplements department, as it reproduces the same supplements that were included on the two-disc “Collector’s Edition” DVD, which basically amounts to 40 minutes of featurettes and a trailer (although the trailer is now presented in HD). “Into the Wild: The Story, the Characters” (22 min.) focuses on the real-life background of Christopher McCandless and what Penn had to go through to get the rights to the book and write the screenplay. It features interviews with Penn, author John Krakauer, song composer Eddie Vedder, and actors Emile Hirsch and Kristen Stewart, as well as plenty of footage from the production that includes shots of McCandless’s parents and the real-life Wayne Westerberg. “Into the Wild: The Experience” (18 min.) focuses on the actual production of the film and includes interviews with all the aforementioned participants, as well as actors Hal Holbrook and Catherine Keener, producers Bill Pohlad and Art Linson, art director Domenic Silvestri, production designer Derek Hill, costume designer Mary Claire Hannan, production sound mixer Edward Tise, and editor Jay Cassidy.|
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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