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After graduating from Atlanta's Emory University in the early 1990s, Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) gives away his savings and belongings, leaves home with out telling anyone, burns his remaining cash and all identification cards, and disappears. His ultimate goal is a lengthy stay in Alaska, but his journey isn’t a straight one, taking him from West Virginia to the Mid West, down the Colorado River, into Mexico, and into LA. Along the way he touches the lives of the people he meets.

Into The Wild
Sean Penn’s last two feature length film direction endeavours weren’t what I’d call successful. The Crossing Guard and The Pledge were bloated, bumptious, humourless and boring. The Pledge is the sort of film one swears must have some kind of deeper meaning because its so vapidly depressing  there simply has to be something more behind its dead doe eyes. I sat through the film twice in desperate search of this meaning, but I never found it. The burn I received from these two films scarred deeply enough that I avoided Into the Wild.

My bad.

Early on Into the Wild does the impossible—it takes the main character’s hippy-dippy ideals and makes them concrete and shockingly unpretentious. Penn could’ve very easily told this story as another numbing downer, instead the film practically skips through the narrative, infusing it with a well earned lack of maudlin. Even the use of melodramatic narration is successfully undercut by beautiful images of a happy Chris exploring Americana. It’s important that Penn acknowledges early on that Chris did these things with joy, and he doesn’t fail us. I forgot I was watching a Sean Penn film halfway through.

Into The Wild
Despite the drama of this larger then real life situation Into the Wild flourishes on a deeply personal level. Penn successfully makes his audience feel like an intimate rather then omnipotent observer. Even the characters that aren’t integral to the story for more then a few moments fell like personal friends when on screen. ‘Touching’ isn’t really a big enough word, but I can’t think of a better one.

Our friends are filled out by some recognizable faces, but mostly these people don’t act like actors. Some of them obviously aren’t actors at all, but none of them stand out as underwhelming, melodramatic or particularly ‘actorly’. It’s nice to see Hal Holbrook get an Oscar nomination for his brief supporting role, but he isn’t necessarily the huge standout. For my money Emile Hirsch’s portrayal of Chris is the performance for ‘the ages’. Daniel Day Lewis earned his best actor win this year, but the overall ignorance towards Hirsch’s performance is mind boggling. There honestly isn’t a weak link in this entire cast, even the kids and non-actors are perfect and natural fits.

Into The Wild
The two things that worked for The Pledge were Nicholson’s performance (naturally) and the well orchestrated wide shots (it’s hard to shake that turkey shot). There are oodles of awe inspiring wide shots in Into the Wild, but stylistically speaking there isn’t a lot to compare the two films. Penn and cinematographer Eric Gautier borrow some ‘classic cinema’ shots here and there, but the visual storytelling process is very modern. The camera is constantly moving, the editing is frenetic even when nothing frenetic is happening, and effective split screen is not uncommon. Thankfully these modernities aren’t overworked or over commercialized, and it never feels like you’re watching an MTV production. If I were to make a guess I’d say that City of God was a possible inspiration.

Video


Into the Wild isn’t the best film for the high definition experience. The film stocks are presented in varying degrees of grain, and the lighting is hyper-natural. That said, some of the daylight nature cinematography is positively breathtaking. Like something out of a multi-million dollar BBC documentary, you’ll want to reach out and touch it. Sometimes there’s a little edge enhancement in wide shots, leading me to believe there’s a bit of mixed in stock footage. Dark scenes, especially the ones lit purely by camp fire, lose more detail then expected, and suffer a bit of low-level noise. Compared directly to a DVD release, I’m imagining that the standard definition colour doesn’t touch the vividness of these hues. The DVD release (from which these screen caps are taken) also suffers artefacts around fine details like on screen text.

Into The Wild

Audio


There are a few moments of exciting surround sound design on this Dolby Digital Plus track, like the moose butchering sequence where flies buzz throughout the channels, but the basic mix is pretty simple. It appears that as much of the sound as possible was recorded on location, which occasionally leads to slight distortion, but it’s worth it for the authenticity (and something the crew seems to be very proud of on the making of materials). The no frills sound is consistently clear, but the majority of the sound is centred. The surround channels are mostly devoted to the music with an occasional flicker of subtle nature effects.

Eddie Vedder’s songs could’ve very easily been entirely counterintuitive to the film’s dignity, but they work just as well as the acquired tracks. The only times the music took me out of the film was when Vedder’s very recognizable voice is used as an instrument without lyrics, similar to the way Hans Zimmer often uses female vocalists. The score is rather unassuming and appropriate, but I’m guessing it was the unassuming nature that caused it to be over looked for an Oscar nod (though how Vedder missed out in a year with three noms from the same film is beyond my comprehension.

Into The Wild

Extras


There isn’t much here in the way of extra features. Things come down to two featurettes (both in non-anamorphic standard definition) and a theatrical trailer. The first featurette is entitled ‘The Story, The Characters’, which sort of speaks for itself. The featurette is basically a dignified EPK, featuring interviews with Penn, the original book’s author, John Krakauer, Eddie Vedder and some of the actors. The interviews are interspliced with footage from the film and a few fleeting glimpses of behind the scenes footage with the real life Chris’ parents. There’s enough information in the twenty-two minute runtime to get the jest of the filming experience, but overall it’s a tease. The real story seems to deserve some kind of full documentary, even if it’s already rather well known.

‘The Experience’ is a slightly deeper look into the filming. I’m not quite clear on why this seventeen-minute featurette has been separated from the other one, as it’s effectively sort of like a collection of outtakes. Covered here is the difficulty of filming on so many different locations, Hirsch’s weight loss regiment, Sean Penn’s directing process, the production design, cinematography, soundtrack and more, all set to a mix of behind the scenes, film, and interview footage. The cast interviews are a thin, and several key members are missing.  Hirsch is a slightly dopey interviewee, which adds even more gravitas to his heady and heavy portrayal. Penn, though open, looks like he just wants the interview to be over.

Into The Wild

Overall


Into the Wild is a moving motion picture experience, and I apologize to Mr. Sean Penn for ever doubting him. I’ll be in the theatres next time he produces something. Watching the film on state of the art, high definition video feels somewhat counterintuitive considering the fact that it will make you want to burn your earthly belongings and go play outside. Just be careful about what you eat while you’re out there. Those without HD DVD players will probably want to save a few bucks and buy the extra-less single disc DVD, because these extras aren't quite worth the extra cash in my book.


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