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March 12, 2008

DVD Review: Into the Wild Could Have Been Great


By Stephen Silver

Sean Penn's Into the Wild falls squarely into the "a meditation on . . ." genre, the sort of movie that combines lots of beautiful rural vistas with meaning-filled voiceovers and examination of The Meaning of It All.


The film is at its best when examining its fascinating characters and taking advantage of several excellent performances and beautiful cinematography. But it's at its worst when it apes Terrence Malick with pretentious monologues and multiple instances of over-directing.


Adapted from the nonfiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild is the true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a privileged background who essentially walked away from civilization. Wandering aimlessly through the American west for a couple of years, McCandless ultimately died alone in an abandoned bus in Alaska. The book, adapted by Penn, was constructed from McCandless' journals and stories of those who met him on the road.


As it tells the story of an American from a privileged background who moved alone to Alaska and died there, Into the Wild draws inevitable comparisons to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man. That 2005 documentary told the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent several years living with the bears in Alaska before one of them ate him. McCandless isn't as much of an engaging, oddball protagonist as Treadwell, but he's still a fascinating character who keeps just enough concealed that his motives remain mysterious all the way to the end.


McCandless is well-played by Emile Hirsch, who in Alpha Dog and now in this film has transitioned well from child actor to adult leading man.


It's also great to see Jena Malone, from Donnie Darko and Saved!, as McCandless's sister, and William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden as his vacuous parents. But the truly great performance in the film is by Hal Holbrook. The 83-year-old actor, Oscar-nominated for the part, plays an old man who McCandless meets near the end of the film. The old man has suffered a lifetime of disappointment, and Holbrook conveys it in heartbreaking fashion.


The film's biggest Achilles heel is its over-reliance on pretentious-sounding voiceovers. At times, Penn even illustrates this by handwriting McCandless's words on the screen. This never works, and it's shocking that anyone thought it would. There's also too much of certain directorial tricks, especially flashing lights in one sequence near the end. Luckily, some of this is mitigated by an outstanding series of solo songs contributed by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder.


Had it made a few more choices differently, Into the Wild may well have been one of the best movies of 2007. It is, however, the best film Sean Penn has directed.


The DVD, while expertly transferred, contains no extras whatsoever.


2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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