Into the Wild Review

It’s easy and almost inevitable to confuse the real-life young man at the centre of Into the Wild with Sean Penn’s film. Clouded by the inability to understand how a 22-year-old of financial privilege and apparent intelligence could forsake everyday comforts in favour of a life filled with adventure and uncertainty, the common complaint with Penn’s film is really one that has more to do with the protagonist Christopher McCandless than how his life has been depicted. Why would someone fresh from college graduation set out on his own, leaving behind family and everything else, for a quixotic journey that would ultimately encompass over two years and thousands of miles? That’s not a question Penn seems particularly interested in answering, and for good reason.

Trying to figure out the exact whys of McCandless’ motivation would be speculative and wrongheaded. The beauty is in the simplicity. Theories are offered, namely the need to abandon a poisonous history with his parents, but surely we’re not to believe that someone of McCandless’ considerable education would be so shortsighted as to sacrifice his life and livelihood for mere rebellion from a troubled upbringing. To fully appreciate Into the Wild, these questions almost have to be set aside. McCandless’ reasons are doomed to remain mysterious and Penn, who also adapted Jon Krakauer’s book for the screen, seems much more interested in celebrating his protagonist’s life than questioning his decisions. McCandless is either a hero or a fool, but Penn firmly sticks to the former. His film suffers only if the viewer cannot make the same leap.

I’ll admit to being right there, though. McCandless’ story is simultaneously stupid and brave. His was a life so foreign to 20th and 21st century American culture that we’re forced to take notice and try for empathy over judgment. Aside from obvious comparisons to Thoreau’s Walden or, superficially, Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, I see some of The Razor’s Edge in McCandless, as well. That feeling of desiring something else than the perceived American dream, of requiring a more challenging and rewarding path than a 9-to-5 with wife and 2.5 children and Sunday mornings at church, it all comes to a head, but, again, without answers. Into the Wild teaches us nothing. It’s an empty vessel in which we can project our own dreams and hopes through Chris McCandless, or we can sit back and mock his youthful naiveté. Idealist versus realist, with your particular persuasion either enabling or preventing you from keeping time with Penn’s film.

Indeed, what Penn has done in filming Krakauer’s nonfiction novel is to present a somewhat divisive figure with utter love and humanity. Chris McCandless is present for every scene of the film and Emile Hirsch has found a definitive signature role that comes along, if an actor’s lucky, once in a career. Hirsch gets chance after chance of turning McCandless into a wide-eyed vagabond who never realises how far he’s in over his head. Acolytes can only look at the Oscar nominations and laugh, remembering how obscene corporate accolades look in relation to the film’s careening message of contentment found in one’s self, not in the actions of others. I hope Eddie Vedder shares my philosophy here, as his extraordinary soundtrack was not only overlooked by the Academy’s irrational love for three (!) songs from Enchanted, but absolutely holds every facet of the film together in ways unseen since Cat Stevens lent his voice to Harold and Maude and Simon & Garfunkel inquired about Mrs. Robinson for The Graduate.

Vedder takes his cues from the film, having written and recorded the songs after viewing a rough cut, but it’s all so seamless you’d think Penn envisioned the tracks there from the beginning. I’m even ready to declare Into the Wild among the best films ever directed by an Oscar-winning actor (though it’s not hardly on the level of The Night of the Hunter),and it sort of puts an interesting sieve on Penn’s career both in front of and behind the camera. Thus far, he’s not combined his two talents, but his outspoken political opinions seem to damage everything he touches for middle America. There’s a flash of brilliance in both The Crossing Guard and The Pledge, but Into the Wild is an unexpected burst of accomplishment in such degree and contrast that it’s difficult to foresee Penn as actor being able to continue with similar commitment to the creation of a film in the future. His uncompromising singularity in presenting McCandless’ story with such a distinct focus should be applauded on DVD, not met with the same deaf ears as possessed by audiences and awards voters.

Appreciating Penn and Hirsch and Vedder and the poignancy of Hal Holbrook, along with the gorgeous images and slightly showy, almost always dead-on editing, could conceivably build the film a cultish future, but proceed with caution. Penn’s extreme romanticism makes for touchingly beautiful cinema, but the uniqueness of McCandless’ journey feels like an essential component immune to reproduction. Any ideas of coming across “The Tao of Supertramp” are attractive only for purposes of cringing. Hope and inspirations of welled up emotion are used to glamourise a near-fairy tale, and there’s little substance in support.

I do think there’s a certain sadness that permeates Into the Wild. Christopher McCandless, self-rechristened Alexander Supertramp, - a name which might as well be A-No. 1 from Emperor of the North Pole - is a tragic figure not for his own life, because he ultimately achieves the fate he deserves and perhaps subconsciously covets, but for the countless young men and women who aim to reproduce his path either through reality or imagination. The “Magic Bus” seats only one and you’re not it. What McCandless did was a triumph via failure, a mistake borne out of denial and hubris. The journey, not the destination. His end point was Alaska, but Penn wisely sees what came before as the true victory. The irony of McCandless’ insistence that human harmony is reached not through interaction with other souls, but, instead, as a result of nature’s rejuvenating cycle gets a damning rebuttal. Death, not life, is the result, defeated by the very wild celebrated throughout. Penn’s version may differ slightly from the official story, but the culprit remains the same cold, indiscriminate entity.

What Penn has done with Krakauer’s book and McCandless’ life is exceptional, but I’m not sure what exactly remains to be mined. I feel like a particular federal agent television character - I want to believe - even if I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to have learned. I want to trade consumerism for tramping around. I want to give away $24,000 to OxFam. I want to begin on one side of the country and work my way to the other side with only a backpack and a thumb. I just don’t know what awaits me there and I don’t have a fully-endowed college fund or parents ready to buy me a new car. I’m only able to cherish Into the Wild if I can accept the transformation from McCandless, a kid we barely know, into Supertramp, someone who’s almost unbelievably able to breathe the air of freedom and uncertainty without choking on responsibility and commitment. Who owns our lives - ourselves or our societies? Your choice will likely determine how much you appreciate Penn’s film.

The Discs

Paramount releases Into the Wild for R1 DVD in two separate versions. A single disc variety contains only the film while the "2-Disc Collector's Edition" adds another DVD, but still has to be seen as a heavy disappointment. The single-layered second disc (using a measly 1.9 GB of space) contains only a pair of short featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau, who must be something like the Chris Columbus of DVD extras. "Into the Wild: The Story, The Characters" (21:53) discusses Sean Penn's journey to film Jon Krakauer's book and has interviews with both men, as well as Emile Hirsch and other cast members. "Into the Wild: The Experience" (17:19) is a straightforward making-of piece. Both are filled with redundant clips from the movie and are presented with interlaced, letterboxed transfers. The film's theatrical trailer is also on disc 2. Since this release retails for $6 more than the bare single disc, it's a shame to see such misplaced greed and uncaring from Paramount. The featurettes are terribly basic and Into the Wild calls out for a much more comprehensive look at the film's background. The brief contributions from Penn and Krakauer are appreciated, but slapping 38 or so minutes of fluffy filler onto a second disc and charging $6 for the trouble seems ridiculous.

The cinematography of Into the Wild is frequently breathtaking, but the DVD doesn’t hardly pop visually. The colours are bright and crisp with a progressively transferred, pristine print. Enhanced in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the dual-layered feature disc is only a disappointment if you’re looking for extremely strong detail and clarity. What Paramount offers up is more than acceptable and I didn’t notice any significant encoding issues. I just expected, with some hesitancy, a slightly sharper, more detailed image.

Both English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks are provided, with minimal differences. The DD 5.1 track sparsely utilises the rear channels, despite the frequent presence of realistic sounds of nature apparently unaltered from what was picked up while filming. Eddie Vedder’s songs sound excellent, but, again, do not burst forth. The DD 2.0 track is toned down, but sounds much like the DD 5.1 option. Spanish and French DD 5.1 dubs are available and yellow-coloured English, French, and Spanish subtitles are optional for the feature, as well as the bonus material on disc 2.

Final Thoughts

Into the Wild is an exhilarating form of nature propaganda that works because Christopher McCandless was real and the audience knows, regardless of how fictionalised parts may be, that the essential elements and the ending are true. I see the potential for holes to be poked amid a hearty dissent, but a film like this is fiercely subjective. You're either roped in or you're not, and I was, I am. Paramount's DVD is of good quality, but the "2-Disc Collector's Edition" is a misnomer absent anything special and the studio should be ashamed.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 00:11:19

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