Into The Wild
For many people who get up and go to the same old job every day a fantasy is to go off the grid. Most of us remember ‘Walden Pond’ by Henry David Thoreau from back in High School English class. The idea of not having a constant stream of bills, a boss always on our backs for deadlines and a constant routine day in and day out is appealing but few would think it at all practical or achievable. ‘Into the Wild’ is the true story of one man who cast aside most of civilization to live in the wild. This man was Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) and although things did not work out well in the end his story is one that is intriguing. He was from a middle class family in Virginia and after graduating Emory University in 1990, gave his life savings, some $25,000 to charity and hit the road. He worked on menial jobs and frequently went off on his own living on only what he could forage from the land. After some time wandering across the continental United States he decided to make good on his dream of an Alaskan Odyssey. He finally hitchhiked up to Fairbanks and from their set off to one of the few wildernesses left in the United States, Denali National Park. He would live in an abandoned bus with a bag of rice, a rife and a supply of ammunition. During this time he kept his journal up to date chronicling his physical and spiritual state. In 1992 some hikers found his last note stating that he was injured and close to death. The last notations in his journal made just before he died showed no regrets, he lived as he wanted to and died after having a ‘happy life’. His life inspired many to make a journey themselves much to the consternation of the park rangers in Denali. Even with these negative aspects of the story it remains one of human spirit and determination.
Notable actor Sean Penn took on the task of writing and directing this story of human independence. Although he had the rights for some time he waited until he could received the blessing of the McCandless family. As such this bio-pic is most likely closer to the truth than most ‘based on a true story’ movies. Penn is a man with respect for the truth and admiration for people who seek their own path through life. Many may remember him as the ultimate stoner Jeff Spicoli in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ or the explosive, photographer punching husband of Madonna but he has certainly matured into a man who cares about the world and is at the top several aspects of the film industry. This movie was obviously a very personal project for Penn who acts in the capacity of writer, director and producer. Penn’s script does tend to the more positive aspects of McCandless’ personal journey. He shows the young man as a spiritual person who positively touched the lives of the people he met along the way. Penn cuts right to the meat of the matter by starting with the Alaskan adventure and employing a series of flashbacks to fill in the story of how McCandless got to that point in his life. He may glorify the spiritual quest of this young man but they consequences are not avoided. There is a dichotomy provided between reaching for your dream and the reality of the practical implications of those decisions. Knowing how the story tragically ends provided a serious challenge for Penn as the writer. He has to relate the story of a life that is cut far too short but still keep the audience engaged throughout the movie. He manages to do this extremely well showing that McCandless lived and died on his own terms and that is more than most people have a chance to do.
Many actors try to make the transition to direction and writing and the results are less than great. Penn is certainly the exception. His direction here is impeccable. This is a visually stunning film that draws the audience into a world most of us will never experience. Penn has a mastery of the camera but doesn’t rely on the often over used film school tricks. He is straight forward with the way he allows the story to unfold. Penn places the audience in the story by focusing on a tiny aspect of the environment and then pulling back to show man’s place in that scene. The landscape that is used here is breathtakingly beautiful and helps to offset the tragic conclusion. Man may have a dream of living in nature but nature can be unforgiving for those not fully prepared. Penn focuses a bit more on some of the reasons for McCandless’ decision to leave home. He displays his feelings that his parents, Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt) where hypocritical for just giving in to living the middle class live style. Many of the flashback scenes are narrated by his younger sister Carnie beautifully played by Jena Malone. The affects his decision to go off the grid on this family his poignantly shown with grace and style.
Penn has the connections in the business to gather together an incredible cast here. With all the renowned names in the credits Penn made the choice to select a relatively unknown actor for the lead. Emile Hirsch has a lot of minor television credits to his name and has taken the leading role in such films as ‘The Girl Next Door’ and the more seriously inclined ‘The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys’. He the young actor shows he has what it takes to share the screen with some of the greatest actors around and hold the story together in the many parts of the story where he is the only human being. Watching his performance here is fantastic. He does more than hold his own he presents his character with empathy and style. I was very pleased to see Malone in the part of his sister. She has been an Indy favorite for years and is becoming an actress of unique talents. For the parents it is a film buff’s dream to have Harden and Hurt. They are perfect in their roles. They never give the audience a reason to believe that there characters were the sole reason for McCandless’ trip. Both give balanced and realistic performances.
Hal Holbrook has been an incredible actor for longer than most of the audience has been alive. He received a 2007 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Ron Franz here. This character is a former Army man who takes young McCandless under his wing and becomes a father figure. His performance is touching and beautiful and never comes off as melodramatic. Holbrook puts on this role like a pair of old, comfortable slippers. He inhabits the man he portrays and this translates to one of the best performances of the year. Every little role is this film is filled by actors of amazing talent. Penn has taken A list actors and talked them into these small roles showing he has the respect among his peers. Aging hippies Jan (Catherine Keener) and Rainey (Brian Dierker) come across McCandless and offer the audience a little touchstone to a generation what wanted to ‘turn on, tune it and drop out’. Vince Vaughn is great as an independent farmer in South Dakota. All of these actors prove that greatness comes out no matter how few pages you have in the script.
Paramount Pictures has a wide variety of material they release to DVD. They have the greatest vault of classic television imaginable and some cult classic films to boot. The release of this film shows that they will remain dedicated to the production and release of truly great films. In the years to come this film will be a part of a growing number of top film lists. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is reference quality. The color balance is perfect, the contrast is text book. The Dolby 5.1 audio will turn your living room into the wilderness. You can hear every little detail of the environment. This release is made with a two disc set. The first disc has the film while the second contains tow featurettes. The first is the story of the characters shown in the story. The second focuses on the experience that McCandless had. This is film that at times is difficult to watch knowing what is to come. It is also one the best expressions of the art of cinema to come around in a long time.
Subsequent to the DVD release Paramount has come up with a Blu-ray version. The beauty of the Alaskan wilderness has never been so real and well presented. The new high definition video is stunning; perfectly balanced with a contrast that makes every scene incredible. the new Dolby True HD lossless audio is breathtaking in the way it surrounds you. If you have a Hi Def system this is one disc that needs to be in your collection.
Posted 02/16/08 (DVD)
Posted 12/07/08 (Blu-ray)