Tuesday, December 23, 2014

WILD Is Career-Best For Witherspoon

 WILD Review:

- Over the last few years, we've seen a number of "one-man/woman-against the elements" survival stories. And there've been some great ones, from the harrowing cosmic odyssey of Gravity to the oceanic adventure of All Is Lost. WILD isn't that, exactly. It's not so much about its protagonist's survival so much as it's about her spiritual awakening. Based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, WILD casts Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl - a woman who decides to embark on a 1,000 mile solo hike in order to find rebirth. WILD shares some elements with the recent spate of survival films - for one, it spends almost all of its screentime honed in on Witherspoon alone in nature. But in this movie, Cheryl's life is rarely in danger. What is at stake is her humanity. This is a character who's experience trauma, who's screwed up, who's wrecked her life. WILD is the tale of her trying to find a clean slate with which to start again.

Witherspoon has been on a mini hot-streak of late. She's always been good, of course, even great. But she fell off my radar for a while post-Walk the Line, only to re-emerge last year, de-glammed and dirtied-up, in the stellar movie Mud. This year, she turns in a strong supporting performance in Inherent Vice, and, most notably, she absolutely kills it here in WILD. This is the rawest and realest-feeling she's been in a film to date, and what works best in WILD are actually the small moments of struggle that typify Cheryl's journey. Witherspoon is at her best when she comically tries to begin her journey, but can't leave her home because she's completely weighed down by her overstuffed backpack. Or when she fumbles while trying to pitch a tent. Or when she playfully messes with some college kids she runs into on the trail. This is a new high watermark for Witherspoon - this is a performance all about the small moments - gestures, grimaces, stumbles, laughs - and there's a subtlety there that I wasn't expecting. It makes me look forward to seeing her in more of these sorts of parts.

I would have liked it if the movie focused in on those small moments, and let us piece together what, exactly, Cheryl was looking to escape from. But where WILD stumbles is that it sort of hits you over the head with Cheryl's backstory, laying it all on pretty thick over the course of the film's running time. We see through flashbacks how Cheryl's family fell apart - partly because of unforeseen tragedy, partly because of her own doing (drugs, cheating, etc.). The highlight of the flashbacks is undoubtedly Laura Dern, playing Cheryl's angelic mother. Dern is fantastic as always. But some of her scenes here - and just the flashbacks in general - feel a bit overwrought. Basically, the movie occasionally devolves into cheesiness, and that's a shame, because its lower-key moments are by-and-large handled quite deftly. At its best, the movie can be really affecting.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) seems to have a knack for capturing those small, humanistic moments. Supposedly he left Witherspoon to her own devices while filming certain scenes, hence the funny, naturalistic quality that colors moments like the aforementioned tent-pitching scene. He also is pretty adept at filming the picturesque Pacific Crest Trail, and showing both its beauty and the danger inherent in sections of its terrain. 

What Vallee stumbles a bit with here is tone. Again, he has so many great little small moments, I found myself scratching my head a bit whenever scenes would pop up that were more eye-rolling than thought-provoking. There's a long, strange sequence in which a writer stops Cheryl to interview her for a magazine about Hobos - despite her protestations that she's not one - that felt really off to me. There's another moment in which Cheryl becomes suspicious of a man who offers aid (with the threat of rape strongly hinted at), only to awkwardly discover that he's actually a genuinely kind, well-intentioned guy. The bait-and-switch makes a later moment, where Cheryl does in fact encounter a pair of dangerous guys - feel more groan-worthy than it should. The movie seems to constantly succumb to hitting major keys when it should be sticking to minor ones.

I enjoyed WILD a lot overall, and look forward to whatever Vallee does next. And the movie really is a showcase piece for Witherspoon. I'm just not sure if the movie 100% lives up to its promise - it has a couple moments I'd call great, but those are weighed down by too many moments that feel forced or tonally off. If you can get past all that though, there is a powerful message at the movie's core - a message about the ability of one person to start over and start fresh, and to put past traumas and tragedies behind and move forward through sheer will and determination. Even when the movie didn't completely sell me on that concept, Witherspoon's powerful performance did.

My Grade: B+

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