Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wild (***1/2)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée


One figures that when Reese Witherspoon negotiated the purchase of the film rights to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in 2011, she may have pondered tackling the role of Amy Dunne, the fascinatingly evasive anti-heroine of Flynn's novel. When the film came out two months ago, this year, you finally get the sense of how difficult it must have been to translate the complexity of that character to the screen - Rosamund Pike's performance of Amy Dunne is not perfect, but you kind of figure that it's the best performance that we could have ever gotten. There's no way that an actress with the starpower of Witherspoon would have been able to attack the character of Amy the way Pike did; if she had, I'm not sure she would have left the film with her career intact. So what is an actress like Witherspoon to do? An Oscar-winner in 2005, her talent doesn't need to be proven, and yet, like many actresses with her specific set of skills, the good roles are so few and far between. Witherspoon was denied the slithering darkness of playing Amy Dunne, but quickly recovered to gather up the role of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Wild presents Witherspoon with an entirely different kind of darkness, but it still gives the actress the opportunity to play against type, to show that her range extends beyond the 'America's Sweetheart' tag we're so desperate to pin her with.

To be sure, Wild is one of the best things that Witherspoon has ever done (will she EVER be better than her star-making performance in Alexander Payne's Election? It's hard to imagine a reality where that happens), but more importantly, you can see that Witherspoon envisions this as her career peak. This kind of transparent passion project can usually turn an audience right off, but Witherspoon is too good here. Whatever vanity she has for this project seems to come from a commitment to the material and not from some hope of career recognition. Wild is a tale of self-destruction followed by self-reconstruction, based on the memoir from famed essayist Cheryl Strayed. Strayed's book was an account of grief, and how it never really leaves you; the pain of losing a loved one gets easier but never quite vanishes, and can still find ways to knock you off your feet a long while after you feel you've recovered. People grieve in a variety of ways, but Strayed's crippling sadness after the death of her mother, Bobbi, led to a dangerous plunge into drugs, casual sex and the eventual deterioration of her marriage. Adapted by novelist Nick Hornby and directed by Dallas Buyers Club director, Jean-Marc Vallée, the film does not shy away from the brutality and the carnality of Strayed's downward spiral. In several flashbacks, we see the behavior that led to Strayed's radical decision to hike through the Pacific Crest Trail - a 1,100-mile trail - in an effort to tear down her very being and come out on the other side a new, and (hopefully) improved person.

The Pacific Crest Trail begins at the Mexican border and goes up through California, Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border. It covers miles and miles of woods, ragged mountainside, blistering desert land, and heading north, you'll likely meet an unfriendly amount snow in the higher elevation. Preparing for the three-month hiking trip, Cheryl has the support of her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and her best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman), but is going for it completely alone. The solitude provides her with the push she needs to confront the pain of her past, including the death of her mother (played by Laura Dern) and her own damaging behavior following her prolonged bereavement. Hornby fills the script with a sort of fragmented, stream-of-consciousness voiceover narration that plays both as a soundtrack to Cheryl's exhaustion but also helps connect the dots of the film's frequent flashbacks. A motif of hearing Cheryl's own voiceover humming of the pop music she hears playing in her head is a brilliant detail of the kind of self-preservation that helps us confront our own physical limits. As Cheryl makes her way up the PCT, she encounters a lot of fellow hikers, mostly men. She runs up to random strangers when she becomes desperate for food, water or shelter. Some of the strangers, like the rancher Frank (W. Earl Brown), are generous and provide Cheryl with just enough support she needs to continue on her trek. There are many male strangers she encounters that are less friendly, slightly lecherous, but Hornby's script is smart never to exploit this for manufactured tension - it's simply treated as a fact of life: a woman traveling alone will face all sorts of sordid men, with varying degrees of menace.

Vallée had himself a critical hit last year with Dallas Buyers Club last year, which culminated in Matthew McConaughey winning the Oscar for Best Actor. That film was disappointing in its dealing with the politics of the AIDS crisis, diminishing the homosexual involvement in the fight against the disease to a single character played histrionically by Jared Leto. Vallée's work in that film was incredibly carnal, but it couldn't break free from constricting screenplay that told a very unconventional tale in the most conventional way possible. Wild's visual aesthetic is very similar, but its effect here was so much stronger than last year's film. The movie's occasionally frantic slingshotting between Cheryl's hike and her previous life works efficiently, contrasting the images and tones in a way that perfectly translates Cheryl's emotional pain. The film's ability to delve into Cheryl's dysfunctional mind is so seamless that it barely seems apparent as a storytelling choice and allows the audience to simply enjoy the film's journey. Vallée edited the film himself (under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy, for whatever reason) with Martin Pensa, which may be the film's strongest formalistic trait. The film seems to always cut to a flashback at the exact right moment, the flow of the parallel story lines sliding side-by-side with a crispness that really suggests a comfort that Vallée found with the material.

Around Reese, is a bevy of wonderful supporting performances that make up a surprisingly terrific ensemble. Outside Witherspoon, the cast is a bit of a revolving door, but they almost always hit their mark expertly. W. Earl Brown's few scenes early in the film have a surprising grace, playing the mini-arc of his character with great wit. As Paul, Cheryl's kind-hearted, but long-suffering husband, Thomas Sadoski plays a kind of withering patience that's hard to really get across in so few scenes. We know he's not as much staying with Cheryl as much as he is imprisoned by her, he's an innocent bystander in her quest to heal herself. Gaby Hoffman continues a streak of strong supporting work, this time as Cheryl's tough love best friend Aimee - a scene with a pregnancy test really shows off Hoffman's fine points as a consistently solid supporting actor. As Bobbi, Cheryl's mother and rock, Laura Dern is incredible. Dern is less playing a person as she is an idealized image, a sanctified creation of a beloved mother birthed from sweet memories, but Dern knows how to hit the right beats, to fill in the small details to make Bobbi more than a strain of sympathy for the protagonist. Bobbi's illness and death is the film's catalyst, and yet we see that it's her lively energy and loving maternity that really makes its effect, and Dern gets that across so splendidly.

But the story of this film is Witherspoon, who delves deeply into this role farther than she ever has for any role previously. It's probably reductive to harp on the stark contrast this role has from her usual movie star persona, but that contrast holds a lot of that performance's power. Witherspoon has always been one of the best mainstream actresses around, especially when she's given a role to play. Even in a broad comedy like Legally Blonde, Witherspoon moved that film beyond the audience laughing at a ditzy girl trying to graduate from Harvard, and found a bitterness in the role that gave her performance a true substantive dignity. In Wild, she allows the explicitness of the material to reach its peak, and she's unafraid of the physicality that the performance requires. That she has several graphic sex scenes may seem surprising, but it's even more surprising how natural they feel by the film's end. There's a long tradition of films about women traveling the margins of the world to find themselves, though what they really end up finding is another man (see: Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun). Wild never falls into that pothole, or more importantly, Witherspoon never allows it to. She keeps her performance focused on the pain. Cheryl Strayed is romantic with many men in this movie, but it's not romance that she needs to succeed. Witherspoon, Hornsby and Vallée know that the power of Strayed's journey comes through her own self-discovery which she's able to find without the help of a friendly companion.

There are a few moments, in documenting Cheryl's downward spiral, where the movie ventures into melodrama and the film's momentum gets a little stunted. At less than two hours, the film feels a little long, but that seems to be purposeful. It takes times to cross the harrowing Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed encountered deadly animals, struggled through the desert heat without water and even lost a few toenails. Along the way, she only encounters one other female, who also seems to be using the trek to purge an inner struggle. All the men she encounters are wildmen, venturing into the wilderness to test the limits of their own masculinity. They don't need to worry about a life they're leaving behind to spend three months on a trail. Adventure is expected of them. Wild is not a feminist film, but it is an account of a woman seeking the adventure usually reserved only for men, taking time away from her own life and responsibilities. Cheryl Strayed's story is part heartbreaking, part inspiring, but mostly it's simply honest. In life, you can make many mistakes but it's usually your own forgiveness of yourself that allows you start over again. Wild does a good job of committing to that honesty, and not allowing the story to take the easy way out, and become an empowering anthem. Wild is not a Katy Perry song and it's not a biopic, it's based on fact but it doesn't need 'Inspired by a True Story' draped before it's opening credits. It's about a woman hoping to find herself in no man's land.

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