Adapted from Jon Krakauer’s best-selling 1996 book of the same name, Sean Penn writes and directs the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man who died at the age of 24 in 1992 under undetermined circumstances after living alone in the Alaskan wilderness for approximately 112 days. Penn cut out Krakauer and tales of similar wilderness journeys that informed the book and the original Outside article that brought McCandless notoriety. Instead, Penn focused on McCandless, intercutting between his time in Alaska and the journey there.
McCandless (Emile Hirsch) graduated Emery College in 1990 and, unbeknownst to his family, drove west. He rejected almost everything about modern society and strove to live the life described by his literary heroes like Henry David Thoreau and Jack London. He left behind his car in an Arizona wash, cut up everything in his wallet, and burned the money in his pocket. He christened himself Alexander Supertramp and went out to embrace the natural world. On his travels, he worked on a farm in South Dakota, paddled down the Colorado River into Mexico, and tramped around, hitching rides and hopping trains.
McCandless is an intriguing character and Penn creates a good balance for the most part without editorializing. McCandless was a smart kid who did well in school, but at moments, the script presents him as all-knowing. Too often, he says the right thing to say at the right time to the friends he makes along the way; however, Penn doesn’t turn him into a hero. The other problem I had was with Penn’s choice of having Hirsch look right into the camera and smile, which ruined the illusion.
Instead, McCandless is presented as a flawed, tragic figure whose downfall, like many people and characters, is pride. In Arizona, he parked where a flash flood knocked around his car. Thinking the rails are free to jump on, he gets a rude awakening from a few baton strokes. When he gets to Alaska, he doesn’t have the right footwear and is given a pair of boots, and he inevitably makes too many wrong choices that seal his fate. He also refuses the wise advice constantly passed on by the adults he encounters.
McCandless is unaware that he is self-absorbed and selfish as the society he has run away from. He tortures his family for two years by not letting them know he is okay, which is just as cruel as any of the transgressions he feels they committed against him. Also, his issues with money are hypocritical. He gave away his life savings, over $20,000, before leaving on the trip, yet in Los Angeles, he looks for a free bus ticket and a place to stay at the shelter, so he has no qualms about spending other people’s money. In the end, he has an epiphany that “happiness only real when shared,” but it is tragically too late.
Penn gathered a talented cast and crew to make Into The Wild. Led by Hirsch’s brilliant performance the ensemble of actors is top rate from his family (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jena Malone) to the people (Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, and Hal Holbrook) he meets on the road. The snippets of Eddie Vedder’s songs capture McCandless and are used well to help move the story along.
Work the particularly stands out is Eric Gautier’s gorgeous cinematography. He captures all the colors of the rainbow that exist along the Western U.S.’s countryside under the ever-changing light of the sun. The presentation in high definition 2.35:1 aspect ratio is the perfect way to view it. The images are clear and detailed as if looking out a window. The blacks and flesh tones all remain consistent throughout the film.
The audio comes in 5.1 Dolby True HD and 5.1 Dolby Digital. The levels are well balanced, but there’s not a lot for the surround to do because the film is dialogue driven. Other than the music and the occasional ambiance from nature, the front speakers do a majority of the work.
The Blu-ray comes with two special features “Into The Wild: The Story, The Characters” and “Into The Wild: The Experience.” Combined they total about 40 minutes and contain interviews with Penn, Krakauer, Vedder, and cast members discussing the film’s creation, which involved McCandless’ family, and the making of the film.
For those who already bought the film on DVD, Paramount/Dreamworks offers a $10 mail-in rebate. It’s a very nice gesture, but for some reason the offer doesn’t extend to those who bought the HD DVD version.