For centuries, literary figures including Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau, Mark, Twain Jack London, and countless others have written about the importance of nature and the importance of living off the land. In turn, many people have taken these written works to heart and set off on their own journeys in search of a new way of life, in search of themselves.
With Into the Wild writer/director Sean Penn tells the poignant, if troubling, story of Christopher Johnson McCandless. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) was a young man from Virginia who became so disenchanted by a life of material things and the rules of everyday society that he left it all behind to become a vagabond, in search of answers to questions that seemed to torment his soul.
The film, based on the 1996 bestseller by journalist Jon Krakauer, tells a heroic, wistful tale of a young man fresh out of college who sent his life savings to OXFAM, cut off all communications with his family, swore off most material possessions, and burnt all his money before setting off on a cross country trip to live in the wilds of Alaska. McCandless used the alias 'Alexander Supertramp' as he crossed the country, darting in and out of people's lives, never staying long enough to get too attached; never losing sight of his goal of getting to Alaska. Though McCandless finally reached his destination, he never returned, dying on an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness near the Denali National Park.
Some will see McCandless' story as a truly brave undertaking that came to an end only because of unforeseen circumstances. Others may see his story as one of a fairly well-to-do-kid who was really unconsciously attempting suicide rather than dealing with his myriad of issues. Given the beautiful and poetic way Penn shot Into the Wild, it is pretty clear he stands in the former camp.
The literary works of Henry David Thoreau and Jack London were the basis for some of Christopher McCandless' philosophies. Thoreau wrote about simple living, natural surroundings, and civil disobedience. However, after a trip to Maine in the mid-1840s, Thoreau said he felt a greater respect for civilization and realized the necessity of balance. Chris had written, "Jack London is King" inside the abandoned bus where he lived in the Alaskan wilderness, but truth be told, London only traveled briefly to Alaska and preferred to spend his days at his spacious California ranch, writing and drinking.
What Penn fails to realize is that no matter how you slice it, McCandless was ill prepared to go into the bush and truly survive. He had few, if any, hunting skills, his wardrobe was not suitable for harsh Alaskan winters, and he didn't even take a map. I make it a policy not to speak ill of the dead, but I don't think you would be accused of living any less off the land if you took a simple map or compass with you.
McCandless was clearly angry at his parents for the lies they told regarding their marriage. Chris refused to talk to his parents regarding the deception he felt when he found out that his father had another son with his first wife two years after he was born. While this situation had to be incredibly difficult, it's a bit odd that he would then follow as gospel the words of Tolstoy, who advocated celibacy but fathered at least thirteen children. While Penn has chosen to spend the bulk of Into the Wild painting Christopher McCandless into a heroic figure, there is clearly a more complex side of the young man that Penn has barely allowed to surface.
The film makes McCandless' vehicle-less voyage from the East coast to the West coast look like loads of fun (with the notable exception of his beat down by a railway worker after he hops a train). We meet the various individuals McCandless formed relationships with during his travels. In one way or another, each person he met taught him a valuable life lesson, and, I thought, tried to gently discourage this strong-willed young man from making his journey into the wild. The characters of Rainey (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) become surrogate parents to the smart but homeless young man and show more concern towards McCandless than his parents ever seemed to. Vince Vaughn is excellent here as Wayne Westerberg. Often cast as the slacker best buddy in films, Vaughn gets to stretch his acting chops just a little bit. Westerberg employs McCandless at his grain farm and helps him make connections with people who teach him some rules of hunting. Westerberg becomes a best friend to McCandless and it is in those few scenes between the two that the audience is allowed a few brief glimpses inside the emotional soul of Christopher McCandless.
The standout performance that really shines through is that of Hal Holbrook. Though the 82-year-old actor's portrayal of Ron Franz is little less than a half hour of the 148 minute film, his time on screen is Into The Wild at its best. Franz tries to be the last voice of reason as McCandless makes his final preparations to go into the Alaskan wilderness. Franz is a sad, retired military man who lost his wife and only child in a car accident decades before. In Chris, he finds a new lease on life, and a new sense of adventure. After watching that relationship unfold, Chris' loss had to be very hard on Franz, who asked as he dropped McCandless off to start his journey to Alaska, "Can I be your grandfather?"
While other members of the McCandless family are characters sort of on the margins of the story in the film version of In to the Wild, they play an important role in establishing why Christopher is the way he is. They also show all the emotional wreckage the boy has left behind as he goes out on his personal mission of self-discovery. William Hurt is Walt McCandless and Marcia Gay Harden is his wife Billie McCandless. No matter what their faults, they want to know that their son is okay. Jena Malone plays Christopher´s younger sister Carine and it is this character who provides the narration that purports to look into the soul of her brother. While the narration served its purpose, I couldn't help but wonder why Chris would leave a sister he claimed to love so much behind.
Of course Emile Hirsch spends much of his time alone and carries a lot of the film on his back. He does an admirable job for such a young actor. When Hirsch has an acting lapse in a spot or two, the beautiful scenery of captured by director of photography Eric Gautier will take your breath away.
No matter what your view on Chris McCandless's adventure, Into the Wild is worthwhile viewing. The performances are superb, and the version of the story Sean Penn has chosen to tell is carefully laid out. In the end though, heroic or ill prepared, Chris McCandless was gone to soon.
Into the Wild is presented in a terrific looking 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The stunning, bright location photography will pop right out at you. If you're a Pearl Jam fan, you'll want to check out Into the Wild because Eddie Vedder crafted all the original music for the film.
The audio is presented in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix that extenuates the sounds of the outdoors rather well. English Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround is also provided, as well as French and Spanish 5.1 mixes. Subtitles in English, French and Spanish are also contained on the DVD.
The first disc of the Into The Wild (2-Disc Special Collectors Edition) contains just the feature film. The second disc contains two documentaries. The first, "The Story, The Characters" (21:52) looks at the development of the story and Sean Penn's ten-year odyssey to bring the story to film. The documentary features some behind-the-scenes moments, and interviews with those involved in the making of the movie. The second documentary, "The Experience" (17:18) digs a little deeper into the actual shooting of the film but it's basically more information from the same people in the first documentary. For those very interested in the Christopher McCandless story, these features are worth checking out. For those who just want to see Into the Wild, pick up the single disc version.