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July 2010

Into The Wild

cast: Emile Hirsch, Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt, Catherine Keener, and Jena Malone

director: Sean Penn

143 minutes (15) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Paramount DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by James A. Stewart

Into The Wild

Society is evil if you believe some scholars. It makes us greedy; it makes us reliant on material objects in many ways and takes the human out of us as we jostle for position in the great race that is capitalism. Every now and then some man, or woman, makes a stand against evil capitalism. Inevitably, people take an interest as the media pick up on the story of such people (well, there are commercials and sponsors to sate after all). In the Sean Penn directed Into The Wild, we hear the story of Christopher McCandless, a well-to-do young man who decides to pack it all in and live off the land.

Penn also wrote the screenplay based on the bestseller by John Krakauer, which is in itself a true story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) is the oldest son from a rich family and has just graduated with flying colours. He has $25,000 in the bank and a future bedecked with all life's lavishness ahead of him. Yet, after some soul searching, he leaves it all behind and goes, quite literally, into the wild. He sets off without any word to his parents or sister. The former he blames for his mental state; their bickering and arguing leaving him disconsolate and wondering if there is more to life than an unhappy marriage and undiscovered dreams. He dearly loves his sister, we are told.

After eloping, the young McCandless resolves to go to Alaska where he will live off of the land, at one with nature. In nearly two years of wandering, we see him in places like LA and Mexico with each location further developing the mind and philosophy he has set out to discover - and on the way he renames himself Alexander Supertramp. Poignant scenes such as when he gives a bum his last quarter are coupled with the fact that the generosity could be defined as cowardice as he was about to use the quarter to call his family, with whom he has to refused to speak.

Then, when in a queue at a soup kitchen, he sees the bums and sees himself yet despite the similar appearances his old self comes back with the assertion that he is not a bum. This is his choice but it's not theirs.

There are quite a number of scenes where double interpretations are possible. The beauty of some of the storytelling is that your own sociological viewpoint will derive what you take from Into The Wild. An ageing hippy might draw on his spliff and shout 'yay!', while the banker in his pinstripe suit would yell 'twaddle' in between portions of cake. The point is that this is not a film where you can be a passive viewer. You define the meaning of the main protagonist's actions, rightly or wrongly.

The vistas and backdrops against which Into The Wild has been shot adds a stunning visual blanket to the intriguing story being played out on screen, and Sean Penn fuses the sadness of the story with the beauty of the wild wonderfully well. As well as the visuals the remarkable voice of Eddie Vedder provides the soundtrack to a great deal of McCandless' wanderings and does so in an apt and understated way.

In the cast we have Emile Hirsch (The Air I Breathe, Alpha Dog) giving a really strong lead performance and setting expectations for a future career of critical acclaim. William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden are solid as the squabbling parents and perhaps the greatest surprise is Vince Vaughn in a straight role, and a good one at that. Thankfully, Ben Stiller is nowhere to be seen.

This is by no means a perfect movie but is a really thought-provoking release. It will polarise opinion as those at opposite ends of the theological spectrum argue the merits of McCandless' actions and the outcome especially. There are those who would defend him and his rights to do what he pleases, and others who cannot understand why someone would pick a life of harshness and cruelty ahead of what McCandless had. When you watch this movie, choose your side without thinking.



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