INTO THE WILD - Blu-ray review

...it's not the character of McCandless...but the supporting cast and characters who bring the story to life.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review both John and Dean provide their comments on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
For me as a critic, 2007 was an unusual twelve months. It was the first time in memory that I disagreed with so many other reviewers on the merits of some of the year's most critically acclaimed films. It isn't that I disliked "There Will Be Blood," "No Country for Old Men," "Sweeney Todd," and the film under discussion, "Into the Wild," but I simply found them ordinary for a variety of reasons. Let's take a look at "Into the Wild."

Sean Penn directed but did not act in the film, one of the few he's helmed in the past decade or so. He may have been perfect for the seriousness of the subject matter, because he's become quite the serious filmmaker lately; yet it's the very earnestness of the production that tended to undo it for me. I was never caught up in the spirit of the thing and thought both the true story that inspired it (a popular book by John Krakauer) and the main character himself were less than worthy of such adoration.

The story chronicles the exploits of a young man, Christopher McCandless, who in the early 1990s showed promise as a top college graduate until he abandoned his affluent family, his friends, and his admittance to Harvard Law for a trek to Alaska to find himself, where he eventually died in the wilderness. In his way, McCandless became a symbolic figure for the thousands of young people before him and since who gave up the comfort of their middle and upper-class lifestyles to find themselves, go back to Nature, live off the land, fend for themselves, and experience life head-on. Recall here the hippie, commune, free-will, free-spirit, and free-love movements if you will. In Krakauer's book, as in the film, McCandless becomes an idealized hero who embodies every reader's deepest desire to shuck the responsibilities of the civilized world and take up in a more natural state. That for most people it was only a dream and for most of those who actually tried it, it turned into a broken promise were apparently beside the point.

Both Krakauer's book and Penn's movie also make much of young McCandless having read and been inspired by Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and Jack London's outdoor tales. What the book and movie fail to mention is that Thoreau stayed for only parts of two years at Walden Pond, he never espoused becoming a hermit or a bum, and he enjoyed a comfortable stay while friends came and visited him. As for London, while he enjoyed the outdoor life, sailed, hoboed across America, traveled extensively, and got arrested for vagrancy, it wasn't for the sole purpose of braving the elements or finding his inner soul. London was basically a boozing outdoorsman who returned home to Northern California, finished his high school education, and then had the good fortune and writing talent to turn his experiences into rousing (and often wildly exaggerated and factually inaccurate) wildlife adventures that afforded him a prosperous living.

My problem with "Into the Wild" is that even though I could understand a young person wanting to leave home and rebel against society, I could never sympathize, empathize, or even admire young Mr. McCandless's behavior. Maybe having seen too many young people throw their lives away in the manner McCandless did in some vain search for identity put me off his character. And despite actor Emile Hirsch doing a genuinely sincere turn as the main character, since McCandless is in virtually every scene, I could never warm up to him.

No, it's not the character of McCandless or the performance of Hirsch that impressed me about "Into the Wild" but the supporting cast and characters who bring the story to life. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden play Chris's parents; loving and caring, they are also the primary motivations for Chris's rebellion. Chris wants no part of their uptight, materialistic lifestyle and turns against their constant bickering and fighting. Hurt and Harden bring a solemn dignity to the roles of the distraught mother and father who would never admit nor ever recognize their measure of responsibility for their son's inner turmoil. And there's Jena Malone as Carine McCandless, Chris's sister and the film's voice-over narrator, who brings a note of tender compassion to the portrayal.

On his journey to Alaska, Chris meets a number of other affecting characters who offer him the counsel and affection he always needed but still refuses to recognize or accept. There are Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Katherine Keener), for instance, a pair of older-hippie wanderers who view Chris as a son they never had; there's Wayne Westerberg (Vince Vaughn), who gives Chris a job in South Dakota and becomes the best buddy Chris probably never had; there's Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), the sweet young girl who is so attracted to him; and best of all, there's Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), the retired old-timer who wants so much to help Chris that he's willing to adopt him.

Yet, apparently, none of these loving, caring people meant enough to Chris to dissuade him from pursuing the impossible dream of escaping society and communing with Nature that so obsessed him. "Into the Wild" is moving and touching by turns, the kind of film I'm glad I saw, especially for Eric Gautier's often breathtaking cinematograpy and Eddie Vedder's original songs and music. Nevertheless, it's not a movie I'd want to see again anytime soon.

John's film rating: 6/10

The Film According to Dean:
The story of Christopher McCandless is sad and controversial. McCandless was a young man from Virginia who became discontent with society and his parents and fled the binds of monetary dependence and the structure of society to become a vagabond who traveled to Alaska to spend time in solitude and search his soul for answers to his inner torment. McCandless used the alias Alexander Supertramp as he crossed the country, and he avoided having his true identity discovered and eventually reached his destination. He never returned from the Alaskan wilderness near the Denali National Park. Some view the tragic death of McCandless as a heroic and brave endeavor that brought about his end because of unforeseen circumstances. Others view the young man's fate as a result of stupidity and consider his time in the Alaskan wilderness as more suicide than adventure.

Director Sean Penn takes the viewpoint that McCandless is a figure of tragedy and weaves the words of Jon Krakauer's book "Into the Wild" into a poetic film that romanticizes the misadventures and journeys of Alex Supertramp into a spiritual journey. McCandless modeled his philosophies from the literary words of Jack London and Henry David Thoreau. His desire to embark on the Alaskan journey was perhaps directly due to Thoreau's discussions about purchasing a farm to support himself during a period of time to write novels and his book Walden, which discusses a life of simple existence in the wilderness. Thoreau and literature's impact on McCandless is echoed in the narration of MacCandless's sister Carine (Jena Malone), which drips in poetry and fanciful words. Penn paints a vision of McCandless that is of a highly intelligent man with a well thought out plan and a desire to live his dream, though ultimately fails due to circumstances beyond his control.

What Penn failed to portray in his film is that McCandless was not fully prepared for his Alaskan adventure and a little better information and a map would have saved the young man's life. Just a few miles upstream was a bridge crossing over the flooded river and civilization was less than twenty miles away. McCandless was not experienced as a hunter and ill prepared to prepare his kill for preservation. Penn does take a moment to show McCandless getting information on how to prepare fresh game to avoid maggots, but the direction taken in the film suggests that warmer weather was perhaps the blame of his meat going bad and McCandless being left without the nourishment of meat for a length of time. He is portrayed as a capable hunter who runs out of game, and not as an amateur hunter who is not properly versed in finding his prey. Time is spent showing McCandless preparing for the physical rigors of his adventure and reading up on edible berries and other such skills needed to survive.

The director also suggests one popular hypothesis towards the death of Christopher McCandless was that he ate poisonous berries or seeds. The contrasting belief is that McCandless simply died of starvation when he was unable to collect enough food to maintain the needs of his body. The film does not explore the possibility that McCandless raided emergency aid stations and took food supplies from them. Sean Penn is certainly among those who view McCandless as a romantic character who met an unlucky end.

The other side of the argument is that McCandless was a young man who could not cope with the ills of society and was angered at the lies his parents' marriage was built upon. McCandless is believed to have gone into the Alaskan wilderness as a naive and ill-prepared person who cared more for his isolation from a world he desperately wanted to escape from and less for his own well being and safety. McCandless appeared to have been a wanderer who traveled from one existence to another and took employment as he needed to provide money to continue toward his goal. He thumbed his way across the nation looking for new challenges and new life situations and made a few friends along the way on his path to suicide.

I personally feel content to settle for the notion that McCandless was a disenfranchised young man who was unhappy and needed to flee his upper-middle class background for a life independent of a career, responsibility, and long-term relationships. He was on the run from society and could not adjust to the rigors and trials of daily life. McCandless was a strong-willed individual with a huge heart who cared too much for people, and this allowed society and modern life to trample his emotions and feelings. This aspect of McCandless was nicely conveyed by Penn and nicely acted by Emile Hirsch in the title role. McCandless helped a lot of people on his journey find themselves and helped them discover a more peaceful and fruitful existence. I have no doubt that a man with the intelligence and heart of McCandless could benefit others in this manner.

Unfortunately, McCandless was too young to venture into the world in the manner in which he did. The harsh realities of modern life were perhaps too much for the college graduate to cope with, and he set out to take part in a carefree life and enter an environment where only he could coexist with Mother Nature. For him, it was the perfect escape and he was driven towards this isolated utopian existence through the words of writers such as Thoreau. He certainly put a lot of thought into his adventure, but he wasn't prepared enough for the dangers that awaited him, and while he thought well enough to mark his trail with a knitted cap, McCandless didn't have the foresight to take a map with him as a backup plan for finding his way.

The film romanticizes the man who became Alexander Supertramp and focuses on the poetry and the humanity of a frustrated youth with a misguided case of wanderlust. The film portrays the various relationships realized by young 'Alex' as he travels from the East Coast to the West Coast and makes a pit stop in Mexico along the way. While Penn may have been in awe of McCandless's spiritual journey and determination, he also respected the friendships and life lessons Alex learned along the way. The characters of Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) become surrogate parents to the wandering youth and show more concern towards Alex than his actual parents ever did. Both Dierker and Keener nail their performances as middle-aged hippies who live from their motor home and travel in a hippy commune in the West. Kristen Stewart is a lovely young lady who entertains as the hopeful, but young, love interest for Alex.

Hal Holbrook and Vince Vaughn are two other strong supporting actors in the film. Vince Vaughn portrays businessman Wayne Westerberg, who employs McCandless at his grain farm and provides a further learning experience and temporary lifestyle to McCandless. Vaughn is the consummate 'best friend' as an actor and provides one of the only true friendships realized by McCandless. Anytime a 'best friend' role exists, Vaughn is perfect.

However, it is veteran Hal Holbrook who really shines in this film as a grandfatherly figure for Christopher McCandless. The 82 year old actor brings the character of Ron Franz to the screen as one of the last voices of reason for McCandless. He's a retired man who finds a new life after befriending McCandless during McCandless's final, long-term stay. Franz allows McCandless to spend his nights at his home, and the two find a genuine friendship that results in McCandless opening up Franz's eyes to a life that can still contain adventure. Franz ends up asking to adopt McCandless and offering him a better life than what he had with his parents. The performance by Holbrook earned him an Oscar nomination, and the actor delivered an honest performance that bore a lot of heart.

The actors tapped to depict the McCandless family deliver a performance that shows the turmoil left behind by Christopher, but also a caring determination to find their wayward kin and a desperation fueled by a yearning desire to know that Christopher is okay. William Hurt is Walt McCandless and Marcia Gay Harden is his wife Billie McCandless. They are strong as an uppity set of parents who are loving, but dysfunctional, and do not quite have their priorities where they need to be. They squabble, fight and love in their performances with believability. Jena Malone serves as Christopher's younger sister Carine and it is this character who provides the narration that looks into the soul of Christopher McCandless and the cancerous depression that ate away at his soul. It was this character's narration that pondered what was going through Christopher's mind, and although it was a little too soaked with the poetic words of authors cherished by Christopher, the narration served its purpose.

Back to Emile Hirsch: The young actor is the true drive of the film. The twenty-two-year-old actor has appeared in a number of lesser-known films including "Lords of Dogtown," "Alpha Dogs," and "The Emperor's Club." With "Into the Wild," Hirsch delivers a strong performance for a young actor, and he reportedly lost forty pounds for the role. He brings intelligence and an adventurous spirit to Christopher McCandless and shows plenty of emotion and heart as he brings the ill-fated boy to the big screen. Regardless of one's own opinions of McCandless, it cannot be argued that Hirsch isn't very good in this film, and I think the long running time of the film would have been difficult at times without the charismatic Hirsch in the lead role.

I don't fully agree with the romantic view of Christopher McCandless that Penn brought to life and felt the director purposely dodged a few key points in the death of the ill-fated free spirited boy. He died at an unfortunately young age, but part of his demise rested on his own shoulders. The film avoided this fact. Still, "Into the Wild" is a beautifully crafted film that possesses stunning nature sequences and some inspired acting from Emile Hirsch and the supporting cast, which included first time actor Brian Dierker, who was the kayak instructor for the film. While I won't call this a brilliant film, I feel that "Into the Wild" opens up a window on some of the finer qualities of life and shows some of the uglier side of society. Nobody should be a fool and rush out on their own Alaskan adventure, but people should remember that McCandless was a young man with a lot of heart who has now touched many people in both life and death.

Dean's film rating: 8/10

Video:
Paramount did a terrific job transferring the 2.35:1 ratio picture to disc using a BD50 and a VC-1 encode. The object delineation is extremely sharp, sometimes extra sharp, with plenty of inner detailing even in darker scenes. The whole thing is quite beautiful to look at, with some exquisite photography rendered with precision. Most important, you'll find colors here that are neither bright nor gaudy but perfectly realistic, with a light film grain providing needed texture.

Audio:
The audio choices, lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and regular Dolby Digital 5.1, both sound fine, with the TrueHD a touch smoother and more natural. Yet, since there isn't much going on beyond dialogue and music, it doesn't have much chance to really show its stuff, especially in the surrounds. All the same, the sound does display a fine deep bass, a natural, well-balanced midrange, and a wide front-channel stereo spread.

Extras:
The two major bonus items on the disc are lengthy featurettes, both in standard definition. The first, "Into the Wild: The Story, The Characters," is about twenty-two minutes long and explores the background of the story and the filmmaking, with the participation of many of the filmmakers. The second featurette, "Into the Wild: The Experience," is about seventeen minutes long and looks at the making of the film itself.

Things wrap up with seventeen scene selections; a guide to elapsed time; a widescreen theatrical trailer in high def; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
On the plus side, "Into the Wild" has a strong supporting cast, some no-nonsense direction from Sean Penn, a wealth of gorgeous photography, an appealing musical track, and one of the best-possible high-def disc transfers I've seen in quite a while. On the minus side, none of these qualities can quite make up for a film that is too long for its material, tends to plod in parts, and over romanticizes a character who chose to throw his life away. It's a close call, but for me the film winds up in the high-average category rather than achieving greatness. The rating below is an average of my 6/10 and Dean's 8/10.

Ratings

Video
10
Audio
8
Extras
6
Film Value
7