Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Director: Sean Penn
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 148 Minutes
Release Date: March 4, 2008

“What if I were smiling and running into your arms? Would you see then what I see now?”

Film ****

When you have a fact-based story told through a film and the result is something that grabs you and moves you on a pure personal level, you feel like you want to share the experience you had with everyone you know. That’s exactly how I felt after watching Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, a film that, despite my best efforts to describe in words, won’t be done justice by a highly praised review…it is a film you simply have to experience.

And what an experience it is. If you’ve seen the ads for the film or are familiar at all with the novel upon which it’s based, you know that it tells the true story of a young man’s journey across the country to experience living, well…in the wild. But what Penn has done here is crafted the film in unique way that defies description. All I’ll tell you is that you should forget every past film where you, the viewer, are in a character’s shoes during a journey, because no other film will come closer to a journey than this.

The young man was Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch, in a truly amazing performance); a straight-A college graduate whose academic brilliance, along with family wealth, would almost guarantee him a successful life. And yet it was that point in his life when Chris decided to officially quit life, donate his entire savings to charity, and hit the open road by foot with one goal in mind, to reach the vast Alaskan wilderness. 

The story is reflected through narration provided by Chris’ sister, Carnie (Jena Malone). Why did Chris make this decision? He had long been questioning the truth of his existence. In addition, he found himself turned off by the very materialistic life that his parents (William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden) have planned out for him. It his journey across the country, which will end up lasting two years, where Chris plans to seek the truth.

He even gives himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, as he hits the road. Along the way, he comes across a series of individuals who all seem to embrace his presence. Most of all, a hippie couple (Catherine Keener, Brian Dierker) who love him so much they nearly want to adopt him.

One of his biggest stops is in South Dakota. There, he begins working for a grain harvester named Wayne (Vince Vaughn). There, he builds a couple of strong relationships, but when Wayne gets into trouble with the law, Chris is forced to continue on his journey west. The film even has time for a classic Vince Vaughn moment when he and Chris have a drunken chat about society in a bar.

Before Chris reaches his final destination, he encounters two more crucial relationships. He has a potential romantic encounter with a young musician (Kristen Stewart). His last friendship, and the most important one of the film, is with a lonely widower named Ron (Hal Holbrook).

When I learned how long Sean Penn had waited to make this film and how determined he was to make it, my admiration for him grew even further. He had been wanting to make this film for ten years, but wouldn’t make it until he got permission from Chris’ parents. And when you watch the film, you get the sense that Penn had to make this film, as it is clearly a personal and passionate project.

What’s more, Penn has made a film that is as faithful to its original source in every possible detail. He has even structured the film like the novel, in a fascinating fractured way. We open with Chris’ arrival in Alaska, and then pull back to see how he made it there. The story cuts back and forth between the past and the present, and Penn has even labeled sections of the film as chapters.

From a filmmaking standpoint, Penn has made a brilliant piece, with all the right elements in place. Eric Gautier’s cinematography captures the sheer beauty of every piece of land Chris comes across. And the songs by Eddie Vedder are nothing short of poetic and provide the perfect soundtrack the Chris’ journey.

Like I said earlier, the film itself is the ultimate journey, and you will feel a sense of awe all the way through it by how authentic the journey feels. During the course of the film, you will laugh, cry, be thinking about so much having to do with the story, and by the end you will be left entirely speechless. It shouldn’t be a mystery that Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is without question one of 2007’s very best films.

Video ****

Paramount has delivered a beautiful looking presentation to one beautiful looking film. The anamorphic picture boasts a wonderfully clear picture with amazing colors and incredible, fully detailed, crisp imagery. The excellent picture quality is valued element in making you feel like you’re right there in Chris’ shoes.

Audio ****

The 5.1 mix brings a lot to this masterful film, which is alive with sound throughout the entire presentation. Music is a key factor, and it plays in almost every scene, whether it’d be the score or any of Eddie Vedder’s songs. Even the smallest little sounds, from the sounds of trains, trucks on the highway, to animals make a strong effect in this presentation. It’s one you’ll have to hear to believe. 

Features ***

This 2-Disc Collector’s Edition only includes two big extras, but they reveal an extraordinary amount of what went into the making of the film. Included on the second disc are two featurettes; “Into the Wild: The Story, The Characters” and “Into the Wild: The Experience”, as well as the Theatrical Trailer for the film.


Like I said, words can’t express just what an experience Into the Wild is. I don’t care how many Jack London books you’ve read, the feeling of being on the road and in the wild won’t feel as authentic as this. Sean Penn has made an amazing, one of a kind film that will be treasured for years to come just like the book upon which it’s based.

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