Friday, January 23, 2015

New movie review: Wild

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the Oscar-nominated film Wild.

Remember that crazy time in 1997-98 when the following happened:

February 1997 – Universal releases Dante’s Peak.
April 1997 – Fox releases Volcano.

May 1998 – Paramount releases Deep Impact.
July 1998 – Touchstone releases Armageddon.

July 1998 – Dreamworks and Paramount release Saving Private Ryan.
December 1998 – Fox releases The Thin Red Line.

It happens all the time, particularly on television, but it is rare that it takes place so much within such a short time period and with such specific topics – two improbable volcano disaster movies released in three months; two end-of-days asteroid pictures released in three months; two star-studded, high-profile World War II films released in six months. Even more interesting is that in each case, the same dynamic played out. One film proved more popular and achieved greater critical acclaim – acclaim being a relative barometer in a couple of these cases – while the other died a quick death.

I mention all this because I fear we may be about to see the same thing go down with a pair of films from the last year, which would be a great disservice to the less acclaimed, less popular film. Generally speaking, it is folly to compare two films against one another simply because they cover a similar topic. Each film has a right to be judged on its own merit, but I could not watch Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild without thinking of the superior and criminally underseen Tracks, from director John Curran.

September 2014 – The Weinstein Company releases Tracks.
December 2014 – Fox releases Wild (what is it with Fox swooping in second with all these movies?).

Let’s break it down: Both are adaptations of memoirs by young women who set off on lonely journeys across an unforgiving landscape in order to discover something deeper within themselves. If you can view these two films without comparing them, then you are not paying attention, but to be fair, you probably have not seen both. Tracks made $508,000 in its entire theatrical run, while Wild made more than $600,000 in its first weekend on just 21screens. Still in theaters, the Reese Witherspoon-starring film has made more than $33 million already.

On its own, Wild is not a bad film, but it suffers greatly from the comparison to Tracks, a more measured, philosophical, and engaging take on nearly the same subject. Here is the thing, though, Tracks is not in theaters now. Wild is. Tracks is scheduled to come out on DVD in February. I urge you to rent it. You will not be sorry you did. However, since no one benefits from these comparisons, we will consider Wild on its own.

Vallée made his name with the 2013 true-life AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club, and he brings many of the same tricks to the true story of Cheryl Strayed, who set out on her own to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed’s story is affecting, if familiar, as she uses her journey to put her life back together after spiraling into drugs and addiction following the death of her mother. But, if the territory feels well worn, Witherspoon’s performance is refreshingly committed, and Vallée coats the film with enough style to cover up some of the tale’s more mawkish elements.

It is nice to see Witherspoon, who also serves as a producer on the film, dipping her toes back in quality waters. She has not had a great run since winning an Oscar for her performance in Walk the Line in 2005, but supporting turns in Jeff Nichols’ excellent Mud (2012) and this year’s Inherent Vice from Paul Thomas Anderson seem to have given her back her groove. Here, she dives mind, body, and spirit into the character of Strayed and delivers a performance that is sympathetic without being cloying and gritty without being over the top.

Strayed is an imperfect person, and it is to the film’s credit that she is allowed to be. She is often selfish and self-centered, and when it comes down to it, she wants to be a better person but does not know how. Witherspoon, Vallée, and writer Nick Hornby do an excellent job of bringing to life a real, complex woman who is still a work in progress, as so many of us are. It is rare to see such a well rounded and fully realized female character on film, and that is something for which to be thankful.

While the movie ostensibly chronicles Strayed’s journey along the Pacific Crest Trail, about half the story takes place in flashbacks to Strayed’s youth, adolescence, and early adulthood.  Vallée brings a stylistic flare and visual panache to the memory sequences that is missing from so many other movie flashback scenes. Though the sonic trickery, light filters, and handheld camerawork are just variations on techniques Vallée used in Dallas Buyers Club, they fit the story well and still manage to give the movie its own unique feel.

The film’s biggest problems are its twin fears of silence and solitude. For a story about a woman who feels lost and alone in the world, Strayed is rarely shown without company of some kind or another. Rather than following each step of a decidedly lonely journey and enveloping the audience in the vast expanses of nature, Valleé takes every opportunity to skip ahead to the next time Strayed meets someone with whom she can have a conversation.

Failing that, the film leans heavily on voiceovers taken directly from Strayed’s memoir, eliminating any nuance from Witherspoon’s wonderfully expressive performance or Valleé’s impressionistic mise-en-scène. Little is left to the imagination – as though the filmmakers were afraid the audience would miss the meaning or metaphor of the journey – which is a shame because it greatly lessens the impact of the film.

Wild is not the first film to spoon-feed its message to the audience, and it certainly is nowhere near the worst offenders, but it is a disappointing trend in movies like this. With the chance to challenge viewers and confront them with the realities of a life in turmoil, it falls back on pat explanations and easy sentiment. Strayed’s story should make us wonder about who we are and how we got here, but the film does not ask these questions. Instead, it goes down like comfort food, which can be good but not always good for you.

See it? Yes.

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