DVD - Image A Sound A Extras C+
BD - Image A+ Sound A Extras C+
starring Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Hal Holbrook
screenplay by Sean Penn, based on the novel by Jon Krakauer
directed by Sean Penn
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Young and full of piss, Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch, amazing) is an idealist brimming with the kinds of ideas that young men entertain fresh out of school: diploma in hand, bile in throat, knowing everything about the world that there could possibly be to know. His politics, stringently black-and-white, aren't that different from the very politics against which he'd rail; for as bleeding heart as kids can be, they tend to subscribe to the foundational belief that the United States is responsible for the welfare (and travails) of the rest of the planet, which is the basis for our self-declared status as moral policemen. In defense of Chris, whose saga has been documented in print by Jon Krakauer and now on film by Sean Penn, he doesn't presume to change the world, he only wishes to escape it--the idea of zero impact taken to its logical conclusion. But the ideal of rediscovering Eden is as illusory (naïve, retarded, you name it) as the idea that a young, educated man from a privileged background and a family who loves him could ever retreat to Walden Pond with nary a ripple to mark his submersion. Into the Wild sports as infuriating a cipher at its centre as Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, and it's to Penn's credit that he doesn't shy away from presenting Chris as a first-class Pinko asshole living his dream with just enough hypocrisy to get him killed and not quite enough to get him saved. Prophet/fool. It's a manifestation of the smug maxim "Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."
Into the Wild begins with a mother's nightmare of being unable to save her son from the crucible of his Passion and continues through to the dark conclusion that while civilization is a lie, so, too, is the wilderness. I've heard it bandied about that the Romanticists wouldn't have gotten so gaga over Nature were their Nature the Amazon instead of the Lake District, and there's a strong argument to be made that Penn's film has something similar on its mind. (It's another link to Grizzly Man, of course--not that there's no "there" there, but rather that there's a lot more there than you bargained for.) It's easy to speculate that Penn is in Chris's "turn on, tune in, drop out" camp* just from the way he films the outdoors like some epic lovechild of Terrence Malick and Andrew Wyeth, in love with the hand-written word and the thought of living "authentically"--but I'm gratified by the extent to which Penn portrays McCandless, every step along the way, as getting good advice he was simply too young and stupid to heed. His mania is familiar, the kid to whom you can't tell anything. (Mark Twain says something about having the dumbest father in the world at fourteen, then upon turning twenty-one being amazed at how much the old man had learned in seven years.) The biggest hurdle the film has to overcome initially is that Penn can't escape his own image as a rebel with multiple liberal causes, having earned YouTube notoriety when he fell into the water of New Orleans' ruined districts. Like Chris, Penn is one half saint, one half clod; pacifist hothead, liberal conservative.
As all of Penn's films have to some degree dealt with the reconfiguration of the American hero in a romanticized American heartland, it's easy to see the draw of Chris's story for Penn. His reassessment of how we define ourselves collectively also reaches its apex here, and though none of his films are exactly a walk in the park, I do wonder whether the death of his brother (actor Chris Penn) didn't lead him to this story of collective loss. In a season of strong auteur statements, Into the Wild is perhaps the most transparent. The only thing that lacks courage is the characterization of Chris's parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden): Any charges of puerility levelled at the piece will have everything to do with how broadly they're treated. The rest of the characters--from Chris's sister (Jena Malone) to his surrogate father, a South Dakotan wheat farmer (Vince Vaughan), to his surrogate parents (Catherine Keener and Brian Dieker), to a grandfatherly type named Ron (Hal Holbrook) who's allowed to hope for a legacy in this doomed boy's enthusiasm--are beautifully fleshed-out. It's through Ron, in fact, a WWII veteran and the victim of unimaginable losses, that the picture finds its heart and purpose; Ron is the American ideal of itself as wiry, courageous, entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, constant, virtuous, resourceful, winsome, stubborn, and finally alone. In Chris, Ron sees a young version of himself, while Penn sees in Chris the prelapsarian version of the United States.
It's a film anchored in this time, full of fatigue for the lies that make up our contemporary farrago. (No accident that Chris, held by border agents, spies Bush Sr. announcing the start of Iraq I on a television monitor.) Never was it so essential that we embrace the truth that we can't get by without a little help from our friends. Chris dies and something essential about America expires in the same breath: first our idealism (our innocence already long gone), then our sense of autonomy, our faith in ourselves, and, ultimately, our security in our island fortress. Penn is exhausted with the narrative structure of and traditional representations in contemporary American cinema and plays with them accordingly. (Hirsch even breaks the fourth wall in one dislocating, distancing moment after delivering an ode to an apple on a bridge; Into the Wild is as tired of the way we tell each other stories as McCandless is with society.) He uses an arsenal of techniques in recounting Chris's tale, echoing Chris's vaguely-defined desire to break away. Applied as a template for the state of our state, that desire isn't wanderlust: it's a desperate melancholy for an authenticity that doesn't exist anymore in any incarnation for anyone. In Chris's zeal, I saw merely doom and desperation. Abandon hope, all ye who seek answers here--the only Truth is that the quest to reclaim the best of what we were disillusions us before it kills us. Originally published: September 28, 2007.
by Bill Chambers Paramount shepherds Into the Wild to DVD in single- and two-disc incarnations. Labelled a Collector's Edition, the latter is frankly not worth the extra $6, as it devotes a second platter to a scant 38 minutes' worth of bonus material, i.e., the companion featurettes "The Story, the Characters" and "The Experience". Given that they were sired by Laurent Bouzereau, they're your standard B-roll-and-talking-heads puff pieces, although they do offer curiosity-satisfying glimpses of the real Billie and Walt McCandless and feature Jonathan Krakauer's admission that he wrote Into the Wild mainly to explain himself to people, a suspicion long held by the book's fans and detractors alike. I confess I geeked-out a bit at the revelation that almost all the sound recorded on set was usable; you'd expect that the shooting conditions would've necessitated much ADR, but Sean Penn evidently hired magicians. As for Into the Wild proper, it looks excellent save the infrequent appearance of mosquito noise, the 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer retaining the grainy texture of theatrical prints while boasting rich contrast and impressive shadow detail. The DD 5.1 audio is dynamic (especially when it comes to the Eddie Vedder tunes), though the mix itself doesn't quite wrap around the viewer or plumb the depths of the subwoofer to the extent that one might expect. A semi-forced block of 4:3 previews for There Will Be Blood, The Kite Runner, Beowulf, and Margot at the Wedding cues up on startup of the first disc and rounds out the set. Originally published: March 3, 2008.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Paramount's North American Blu-ray release of Into the Wild is revelatory; having missed the film in theatres, I feel like I've finally had a viewing experience comparable to seeing it on the big screen, in clarity if not in scale. The standard-def version just looks so bland next to this 2.40:1, 1080p presentation (clocking in at a staggering 43 gigs), which unpacks detail and wrings depth from the image. Flesh tones are less jaundiced and the verdant backdrops not so homogenized, and there is newfound verisimilitude to the performances, with it being plainly obvious that much of the cast went au naturel (or a calculated simulation thereof) from the neck up. Better still, the organic, filmlike transfer is free of digital embellishments like noise-reduction or edge-enhancement. As for the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD track, even downmixed it's more aggressive than the DD 5.1 audio of the DVD (a higher-resolution variant of which is also included here), but it still favours the forward soundstage. Extras are identical to those of the 2-Disc Collector's Edition, though a single trailer for Into the Wild itself replaces the bevy of previews--and it's the only bonus feature formatted in HiDef. Originally published: December 29, 2008.
*Consider the rest of Timothy Leary's quote as a blueprint for both McCandless and Into the Wild: "Like every great religion of the past we seek to find the divinity within and to express this revelation in a life of glorification and the worship of God. These ancient goals we define in the metaphor of the present 'turn on, tune in, drop out." return