Sean Penn may have built his career as an Academy Award-winning actor in such diverse films as ‘Mystic River,’ ‘Sweet and Lowdown,’ and Gus Van Sant’s ‘Milk,’ but his work as a meticulous director in such intriguing projects as ‘The Indian Runner,’ ‘The Crossing Guard,’ and ‘The Pledge’ has allowed him to emerge as something more. Most recently, Penn wrote and directed ‘Into the Wild,’ a faithful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book of the same name that followed the at-times cathartic journey of a young man who walked into the wilderness and never returned. Hailed by critics and cheered by anyone who caught the film in theaters, ‘Into the Wild’ solidified its position as one of the best films of 2007 and as a compelling character study that will surely stand the test of time.
It’s no secret (in the original book or in Penn’s film) that the subject of ‘Into the Wild,’ Christopher McCandless (portrayed effectively and emotionally by Emile Hirsch), divorced himself from society without warning and eventually died at twenty-four in the forests of Alaska. After graduating from Emory University in 1990 and sharing a pleasant, unassuming dinner with his wealthy parents, McCandless donated his savings, cut off communication with his family, trashed his IDs, and set out across the country in his car. Once the vehicle died, he took to the roads, hitchhiking his way across the country. Eventually taking up residence in a weathered, abandoned bus in Alaska, McCandless wrote a journal of his musings and travels, slowly withered away to a frightening weight, and died a young hermit whose motivations have never been fully understood.
The overwhelming impact of ‘Into the Wild’ doesn’t rely on a “surprise, he dies!” plot-twist or a tragedy’s traditional structure, but rather on Hirsch’s raw and authentic portrayal of a young man whose mysterious descent into madness ended as quietly and quickly as it began. Watching the actor disappear on screen while succumbing to McCandless’s romantic notions of living and existence is an unsettling, yet oddly transcendent experience that’s nearly impossible to describe. In short, his vulnerability as a performer is astounding. Hirsch pushes himself (or perhaps willingly accepts Penn’s prodding) to extremes that would have broken the majority of the pretty-faced up-and-comers floating around Hollywood today. His performance is so authentic, so disconnected from his own well-being, that we get a striking sense of McCandless’s state of mind. It’s disconcerting and depressing to say the least.
Despite his main character’s tragic end, Penn manages to use non-linear storytelling and jarring parallels to delve into the passion of youth, the lure of undefined purpose, and the exhilaration of searching out one’s own identity. He successfully places his audience in two positions -- first, as a helpless observer witnessing the unnecessary deterioration of a mentally disturbed idealist and, second, as a reluctant ally who sees the intrinsic benefit to McCandless’s quest. There are several scenes in which I desperately wanted someone… anyone to find McCandless and yank him out of his stupor; when I wanted those who were inadvertently influencing him to pull away so he could think entirely for himself. At the same time, I continually found myself wondering if his chosen path was really the only thing that would ever have made him truly happy. It may have brought him to a tragic and early end, but I found myself considering the possibility that his short life was more fulfilling than any life his college career or predefined future would have afforded him.
By the film's disquieting climax, it’s Penn’s beautifully-filmed insistence that we feel pity, sympathy, and contentment with McCandless’s discard for social ties that makes ‘Into the Wild’ something special. It’s a heartbreaking and invigorating character study, one that leaves us sorrowfully mulling over what we should learn from McCandless, his unorthodox life, and his untimely death.
The Blu-ray edition of ’Into the Wild’ boasts a striking, technically proficient 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfer which, to my eyes, is identical to the previously-released HD DVD transfer our own Josh Zyber reviewed earlier this year. Naturally lit exteriors lead to hot whites and blazingly bright imagery, but the BD presentation handles it in stride. Colors are vibrant (albeit washed out at times), blacks are well-resolved, shadows are heavy but revealing, and the gorgeous cinematography is respectfully rendered down to the last branch and piece of loose stone. An increased level of fine detailing offers a substantial improvement over the murky DVD -- edges are crisp, facial features are sharp, and textures are fairly lifelike. There are a few shots that are softer than the rest of the film, but it appears to be the result of the original photography more than anything else.
If I have any complaint, it’s that several scenes have been subjected to a bit of minor DNR. While its application isn’t nearly as intrusive as it is on some of Paramount’s other transfers, it’s still a distraction for anyone sensitive to its oh-so-annoying side effects. Thankfully, ‘Into the Wild’s grainy, film-like appearance has been largely preserved and translates nicely to the screen. I didn’t detect any significant artifacting, unintentional source noise, or edge enhancement. All things considered, it’s a commendable transfer that should satisfy fans and newcomers alike.
Spec junkies will claim the Blu-ray edition of ‘Into the Wild’ bests its HD DVD counterpart with the inclusion of a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround track, but I’d question anyone who said the disc’s lossless audio offering actually resulted in any perceptible upgrade from the HD DVD’s strong Dolby Digital Plus mix. Dialogue is clear, stable, and well prioritized, effects are realistic, and the soundfield is precise and convincing. This isn’t the sort of film that will amaze people with ear-pounding explosions or whizzing missiles, but rather a delicate journey that relies on believable acoustics and impeccable ambient support to create a wholly immersive experience. Pans are smooth, directionality is dead on, and the LFE channel, when called upon, provides plenty of weight and presence in the mix.
Such subtle sonics may not blow away anyone with ADD, but the film’s original sound design and subsequent lossless presentation will certainly please audiophiles and leave fans of the film with very few complaints.
’Into the Wild’ arrives on Blu-ray with the same anemic supplemental package that was included on the previously-released DVD and HD DVD editions. Chalk it up to my love of the film, but a pair of all-too-short standard definition featurettes is a travesty when you consider the various avenues the disc’s producers could have explored.
As a film, I can’t recommend ‘Into the Wild’ enough. Penn’s direction is masterful, his cast delivers outstanding performances, and his adaptation of Krakauer’s book as a lyrical tragedy is both stirring and disquieting. As a Blu-ray release, it has a lot to offer as well. Yes, it still suffers from the same underwhelming supplemental package as its previous DVD and HD DVD editions, but its excellent video transfer and haunting TrueHD audio mix more than make up for it. As it stands, ‘Into the Wild’ should be on everyone’s shortlist of titles to buy.