When I walked out of Sean Penn’s mesmerizing Into the Wild I turned to the people I saw it with and said, “That is the best film I’ve seen so far this year!” Touching, gripping, emotional, meaningful, beautiful, poetic and ultimately heart-breaking, Into the Wild is all that and endlessly more. Christopher McCandless had a little bit of everyone in him, which made connecting with him that much easier and the eventual result that much harder to watch. But the film lost nothing because of its supposed anticlimactic conclusion, and it had me along for the adventure every step of the way.
Into the Wild is based on a Jon Krakauer book of the same name, and it stars Emile Hirsch as Chris McCandless, an idyllic twenty-four year old whose rift with society forces him on a harrowing two-year journey that ultimately ends with his death from starvation in the wilderness of Alaska. There have been complaints about Penn’s direction, the editing of the film, and even the cinematography, but they're all wrong. Into the Wild is as real as movies get. Nothing about the style, the narration, the acting, or the writing is even remotely problematic, and they all fuse perfectly with Chris and his story. This is credit to both Emile Hirsch’s amazing performance and the sheer tragedy of McCandless’ tale.
Another big criticism of the film is that since Chris is such an unsympathetic character it’s hard to like a movie that tells his story. While there is some truth to Chris having a narcissistic personality and how it should make him an unsympathetic character, Penn doesn’t romanticize it. I found myself relating to a lot of Chris's feelings and ideas about life in general, with one huge difference: I would never leave loved ones behind like he did. Even if I hated my parents, I couldn't leave my friends. And if I had no friends and made them on the road like he did, I could never leave them behind. So in that way, he was definitely stupidly selfish. But this is the very reason we should feel sorry for him, and everything in the film works towards him finally realizing that he's wrong.
Chris genuinely thought he was embarking on a journey that he’d ultimately learn from, and one that he’d eventually return from. The whole film builds towards the notion that Chris did learn to overcome his narcissism, but it cost him his life, and more importantly, a chance at ever being happy. Sure, you have to feel sorry for all the people that loved him and were hurt by his death, but you know they’d be able to find happiness with or without him. Chris's narcissism cost him his life - nobody else’s. How can you not sympathize with that? It's extremely tragic that Chris had to resort to such drastic measures in simply trying to find life’s answer, and if you don't agree, you're a heartless creature -- it's that simple.
Into the Wild works because Sean Penn is a master storyteller, and he knows his way around with a camera. The film is filled with absolutely breathtaking panoramas. In addition to Hirsch’s inspired performance, Into the Wild also has an amazing supporting cast which includes Catherine Keener, William Hurt, Vince Vaughn and of course, the Oscar nominated Hal Holbrook, who gives one of my favorite performances of the year. And finally, there’s the music of Eddie Vedder – music that should’ve garnered golden tinted recognition. Stripping down to a mere acoustic guitar and sometimes a ukulele, Vedder seems to be along with Chris every step of the way, using his deep baritone to convey Chris’s thoughts, feelings and emotions throughout the varying stages of his journey.
One of Into the Wild greatest strengths is its ambiguity. In the end, you'll have to decide for yourself whether you like Chris or not. And who says you have to like him? Most people didn’t, which is why there’s such a discrepancy in interpretations. Perhaps more importantly, does anybody really know how Chris McCandless would've lived the rest of his life had he survived Alaska? Or can anyone say for sure whether or not he'd choose the same route if he could do it all over again from the start? Nobody can answer these questions, and so his true nature remains ambiguous. You may not be able to swallow Chris’s abrasive personality, but you'll still appreciate Into the Wild for flawlessly presenting his tragic tale.
The fact that Paramount chose to release both a Standard DVD and 2-disc Special Edition DVD is absolutely ridiculous. Of course, the principal has always been ridiculous, but that’s not even what I mean. The single disc version of Into the Wild has no special features, and the two-disc SE has, umm…two? Are they kidding me? No, they’re not, and I’m not kidding you either.
The sad part is, the content of the included special features is absolutely fascinating – there just isn’t nearly enough of it. The first feature is The Story, The Characters and its original title suggests exactly what it entails. We get to listen to Sean Penn, some of the actors, and even Jon Krakauer speak about Chris, some of the other characters they play and about Chris’s story in general. And it’s great stuff, especially the Krakauer parts because he’s mesmerizing – but it’s all to short and thrown together.
The second and last feature is The Experience and it’s done in the same behind-the-scenes fashion as the first feature, which essentially means they’re one big feature split into two. Except since they’re only about 40 minutes long when combined, they’re not very “big”, especially considering they’re all that we get. The Experience concerns itself with the making of the film, which is again very interesting and again, very short lived. We also catch a few glimpses of the real McCandless family, which is very exciting and a huge tease, but I suppose we can’t blame them for not wanting to speak in from of the camera – being involved in the book and then the film were probably about as much as they could handle.
Since I paid $4 extra for the “Two-Disc Special Edition!” of Into the Wild, I expected a special experience akin to that of the film, but I was left extremely disappointed. As I said, I love the content, but it’s about a quarter of the amount I expect from an SE DVD. At the very least, I expected an audio commentary from Penn, Krakauer, or both, but alas – nothing. Oh, I did actually forget that the theatrical trailer is included in the special features, which is a huge error on my part because that’s exactly what everyone wants to watch after they’ve already seen the film.