Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: Wild

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Written by: Nick Hornby based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon (Cheryl), Laura Dern (Bobbi), Thomas Sadoski (Paul), Keene McRae (Leif), Michiel Huisman (Jonathan), W. Earl Brown (Frank),Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), Kevin Rankin (Greg), Brian Van Holt (Ranger), Cliff De Young (Ed), Mo McRae (Jimmy Carter), Will Cuddy (Josh), Leigh Parker (Rick), Nick Eversman (Richie), Ray Buckley (Joe).

Perhaps the worst thing that happened to Reese Witherspoon’s acting career is that she, and everyone else, discovered just how great she is in romantic comedies. There really is no denying that Witherspoon was made for those movies – she’s pretty, funny and smart and she handles the roles well. There is probably no other actress who is better suited for the romantic comedies Hollywood was churning out a decade ago than Witherspoon. Even after winning an Oscar for Walk the Line, she continued to churn out romantic comedies, until they fell out of favor in Hollywood. She has been struggling the last few years to find good roles. But with Wild she has finally role a perfect for her – that brings her back to the more interesting, even edgy, actress she was earlier in her career – when she made movies like Freeway and her best ever performance in Alexander Payne’s Election. Playing Cheryl Strayed, a woman who after the loss of her beloved mother, spirals downwards into drug addiction and promiscuity, ruining her life and her marriage, who decides to walk 1,000 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail, one year to get herself back on track. Cheryl is far from perfect – and Witherspoon doesn’t attempt to sand off her rough edges. For those who only remember the romantic comedy Witherspoon, her numerous sex scenes, and drug scenes, seem shocking. To those of us who remember just how good she can be in the right role, Wild doesn’t shock – but it is a welcome return to form – something that some of us have been waiting for more than a decade.

Witherspoon, who also produced, did a smart thing by hiring Quebecois filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee to direct the film. He’s best known for his last film – Dallas Buyers Club – but in two of his previous Canadian films – CRAZY and Café de Flore – he has shown his ability to handle movies somewhat like Wild – films that don’t really have that much of a plot, but are really more journeys of discovery for the lead characters. Not much happens in Wild – she walks the trail, meets some people, but is mostly by herself, with a running monologue in her head. The film uses cues on the trail to flashback to certain scenes in Cheryl’s life – with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) as they suffered under the hands of an abusive husband and father, and later when Bobbi leaves, and starts to rebuild her own life through education, through her mother’s illness and death, and through scenes where Cheryl spirals downward, and ruins her marriage. The scenes on the trail are mainly linear, but the flashbacks aren’t necessarily that way. Vallee, who also co-edits under an assumed name, edits intuitively and this helps build the films underlying emotions. Nick Hornby’s screenplay helps as well – yes, there are a few clunkers in the dialogue department that sound more like inspiration quotes than anything else – but for the most part, he doesn’t overdo it with the dialogue – he never feels the need to sell it.

For that, the film has Witherspoon, who truly is great in the film. She doesn’t overdo it either – she prefers quiet, natural moments to overdone histrionics. She has her share of scary moments on the trail – involving snakes, and men – but basically she is by herself, trying to figure out who she is, and what she wants to do next. That probably sounds horribly clichéd – and it easily could have been – but here it works.

When I reviewed John Currans Tracks a few months ago – starring Mia Wasikowska, which is about a young woman who hikes across the Outback, I wondered about Wild – I thought that Tracks, which is an indie, would be the better, more subtle, more confident film, and Wild would be the more Hollywood version. To a certain extent, that is true – Wild is more classically structured, and does answer the question as to why Cheryl went on the hike in the first place, which Tracks doesn’t bother with. But Wild is also the better movie – and isn’t nearly as clichéd as you may expect. Witherspoon is brilliant – but the whole film is pretty damn good.

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