- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Paramount Vantage
Reviewed by Andy Kurtz
f anyone was going to do a silver screen adaptation of “Into the Wild,” Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed novel about a young man who eschews a life of privilege to tramp across the U.S. only to end up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness, it was Sean Penn. Let’s face it: whether he’s railing against Bush, pulling Katrina victims out of toxic sewage, dining with third-world despots, or savagely beating paparazzi (or loved ones), the guy – much like Christopher McCandless, the subject of the book and film – marches to the beat of his own drum.
Christopher McCandless, the son of an overly controlling, abusive, bigamist NASA engineer, grew up in Annandale, VA, a well-to-do suburb of Washington, DC, before attending Emory University in Atlanta to appease his father. Shortly after graduating, he donated $24,000 in savings to a famine relief organization and headed west in a beat-up car. Two years later, his starved corpse was discovered by moose hunters in an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness.
What drove this 24-year-old with a seemingly bright future to go to such extremes? This is what the book and the film attempt to understand. Since he died McCandless has been the subject of argument between those who find his actions heroic, and others who think he was a naïve fool. There’s no doubt that Krakauer’s book tends to take the side of the former, depicting McCandless as an adventure seeker looking for self-discovery. With the film Penn does no different – infusing his own experiences with McCandless’ in order to tell the story. For the most part, Penn does a great job of capturing the feel of the book, but falls a bit short of achieving the depth of Krakauer.
“Into the Wild” does work on many levels, however, mostly due to its star Emile Hirsch (“The Girl Next Door,” “Alpha Dog”), who immerses himself completely into the role of McCandless. Hirsch turns in another terrific performance proving yet again that he’s one of the most talented young actors working today. As McCandless, he simultaneously exudes bravado and humility but somehow pulls it off without it seeming contrived, which it easily could have been in the hands of lesser actor.
Other than McCandless, the other major character of note in “Into the Wild” is nature itself, and it’s on gorgeous display in this film. Lush cinematography captures the sweeping vistas and wildlife of Alaska in all of its aching beauty and perpetual danger. Even the scenes outside of Alaska, from the lonely barren deserts of Arizona to the stifling, overly manicured suburbs of Northern Virginia, are candy for the eyes and food for the soul.
Despite the passion Penn and Hirsch put into the film, however, it is impossible to judge “Into the Wild” without judging its subject matter, which is something the book inexplicably manages to do. Ultimately, how you view Christopher McCandless himself will affect your enjoyment of the film. Penn grasps the details of the book for the most part, and it is his best filmmaking effort to date, but if you’re not on board for McCandless’s ultimately self-destructive journey, then you’re not going to be on board for the film, either.
Obviously it’s difficult not to be affected by someone so young dying in a way many would consider selfish or trivial. But what we learn from the book and the film is that, in all likelihood, McCandless had no regrets and that he was never happier than in the final months he lived on his own in the wilds of Alaska, with nothing but his thoughts and reflections on a short life, but one he lived honestly and on his own terms. In the end, however, the flaw of the film is that Penn doesn’t seem to be nearly as perturbed by the outcome as one should be.
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
The Blu-ray release of “Into the Wild” is so bare that unless you really love the movie, there's no point in double-dipping. To be fair, the Alaskan wilderness looks incredible in HD, but the lack of special features is a major disappoinment. Only two extras appear: a making-of featurette titled "The Experience" and an EPK-styled promo that is so self-congratulatory you'd think the movie was better than it was.