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I've always wondered why high schools teach Henry David Thoreau, as his philosophy is against everything parents and the community wants to instill in their children. In 1990 a disaffected son turned away from his parents and set off on a vagabond existence, looking for the truth by hitching around the country and living off his wits. We celebrate the adventures of men like Jack London but certainly don't want our children following his example. Young Chris McCandless embraced the personal pioneer spirit to the hilt, renaming himself "Alexander Supertramp" and preparing to live in the true heart of nature "away from the things of man": the Alaskan wilderness.
Chris McCandless didn't make it back from his Alaskan adventure, but he left behind an annotated diary and a number of friends that he met on his journey. Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild put McCandless into perspective, creating a portrait of a very special person, a young man determined to cut all ties and go his own way. He's been both lauded as a unique free spirit, and criticized as a self-destructive fool trying to escape from reality.
Actor and director Sean Penn found McCandless's story riveting. He spent the better part of a decade putting it into film form and waiting patiently for the young man's family to give their approval. Into the Wild now debuts on Blu-ray in a dazzling HD transfer that captures the entire scope of Penn's impressive movie.
Some of Sean Penn's previous directorial work has leaned toward overwrought acting ordeals for his actors, but Into the Wild is a disciplined story that delineates McCandless's exciting adventures while examining his character. At first Chris (Emile Hirsch) seems like a bright college graduate determined to make things difficult for his parents (William Hurt & Marcia Gay Harden). When they give him a graduation lunch and want to reward him with a new car, he acts as if they want to steal his soul. Chris opts instead for total freedom. He quite deliberately disappears from his family life, taking off in his old Datsun for a series of adventures that show him to be an extremely bright fellow limited only by his lack of hard experience. On his first night in the Arizona desert, he almost perishes in a flash flood, the kind of mistake few locals would make. An expert with maps and books on wildcraft, Chris is determined to keep his Alaska plans to himself.
Chris wants to be his own man but he's definitely a social animal. Under the alias Alex Supertramp he takes a job in South Dakota, making fast friends with Wayne Westerberg, a hardworking guy who sublimates his own yen for adventure into petty crime. Even Wayne can see that Chris has a wild gleam in his eye: "You're a young guy! Can't be juggling blood and fire all the time!" Director Penn regularly returns to scenes of Chris's family back East, as his father and mother are forced to confront their own values in the face of their son's disappearance. In just a few minutes of screen time, the parents win our full sympathy. Into the Wild's portrait of family pressures makes a satire like The Graduate seem extremely shallow: Benjamin Braddock isn't fit to shine Chris McCandless's shoes.
Chris's adventures take him down the Colorado River all the way to Mexico. An inspired amateur with a mind-over-matter attitude, he goes alone in a tiny kayak without so much as a helmet, teaching himself how to whitewater on the way. Hiking back to the U.S., he has no trouble talking a border guard into letting him into the country, despite his lack of I.D. Although he claims to be a student of Jack London, he doesn't want to spend a night in an L.A. Mission with the other transients. He also underestimates the violence of the railroad bulls when one catches him riding a freight car. Even casual readers of London never forget his experience with railroad deputies determined to kill hoboes.
Chris's adventures take him to beach camps and a squatter community down in the ruins of the Salton Sea. He contacts a small cross-section of marginalized Americans, almost too perfectly chosen to be real. Superannuated hippies Jan Burres and Rainey (Catherine Keener & Brian Dierker) practically adopt Chris and probe him for reasons why he won't contact his family. When asked if he's being fair to his parents, Chris quotes Thoreau: "Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth." Chris returns their affection but retains his independence. He also has a flirtation with the 16 year-old Tracy (Kristen Stewart of Twilight). He handles the girl's infatuation with sensitivity and generous friendship, refusing her offer of sex with a resolve that only strengthens her trust.
Chris finally befriends Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), a retiree who teaches him leathercraft and prompts him to express some of his reasoning. It's pure American spirit: "I think careers are a 20th century invention and I don't want one." The two grow so close that when Chris gets ready to leave, Franz asks to adopt him.
Sean Penn films all of this with a Big-Sky outdoor epic look. Chris packs an enormous amount of joy into two years, merging with nature in deserts, rivers and forests. He eats an apple while showering it with compliments. All along, editor Jay Cassidy has been balancing Chris's adventures as a drifter with scenes of his final big experiment living in the Alaskan wild. Eventually the Alaskan finale is all that is left. Chris's preparations are impressive and he lucks out by finding an abandoned bus to use as his home. But he's just not experienced enough to catch, shoot and forage enough food. He lets some prey go free and makes the mistake of trying to dress and cure an entire moose based on instructions from a pamphlet. His weight drops dangerously low, and with it his strength.
Nature shows its cruel side when Chris discovers that a creek has swollen to the size of a river, cutting off his retreat route. And that's the end of his good luck. But he stays true to his goals all the way to the end, writing both what he's learned and what he feels in his diary. One important lesson confirms advice spoken by Jan Burres and Ron Franz -- happiness needs to be shared. The whole man needs the company of others as much as the purity of achievement.
Some viewers will look at Chris's fatal mistakes and write him off as a brat living out an unrealistic fantasy, perhaps like that semi-delusional "Grizzly Man" studied in Werner Herzog's documentary. But Penn and Hirsch show Chris McCandless to be a visionary, rejecting lifestyles in search of a truly meaningful life. America used to make these kinds of adventurers into legends, especially when the frontiers were unsettled. McCandless pursued his dream on his own dime, willing to take responsibility for his fate.
The film is a warning to kids who don't realize that many life decisions have permanent consequences. But it's also a challenge to parents that preach caution and the idea that life is a matter of avoiding fatal missteps. Chris is the Conquistador of his own soul, burning his boats behind him to force himself into unforeseen adventures. He doesn't throw his life away; he's looking for an even better life. Into the Wild is a great movie with a positive message.
Paramount's Into the Wild looks fantastic on Blu-ray, reminding us of the few corners of the country still unspoiled by creeping development. Eric Gautier's cinematography records the beauty of nature, but also invents interesting shots to express Chris McCandless's inner joy, like a slow motion view of Chris's head whipping back and forth as he takes a shower. The music by Michael Brook, Kaki King, Eddie Vedder complements the film's moods while restraining the pop songs from turning the movie into a travelogue juke box.
The extras are a pair of interview featurettes assembled by producer Laurent Bouzereau. Sean Penn tells us of his relationship with the real McCandless family, while the actors (including Jena Malone, who is radiant as Chris's sister) relate their impressions of working with Penn on the arduous eight-month shoot. We also discover that Emile Hirsch's gaunt, scary appearance at the end of the film is no special effect -- he dieted from 155 pounds down to 115. A trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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