Friday, September 18, 2015

Wild


Directed by  Jean-Marc Vallée.

2014. Rated R, 115 minutes.
Cast:
Reese Witherspoon
Laura Dern
Thomas Sadoski
Keene McRae
Michiel Huisman
W. Earl Brown
Jan Hoag
Kevin Rankin
Mo McRae

Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) has decided to hike the one hundred plus mile Pacific Crest Trail all by her lonesome. She fills up her backpack with way too much stuff and off she goes. During the trip she does lots of thinking. Through her numerous flashbacks we discover she has a history of drug abuse, adultery, and misses her mom badly. In the present, she occasionally runs into other people, some of whom seem to be pretty shady. This is based on the memoirs of the real Cheryl Strayed.

The best thing about Wild is the two Academy Award nominated performances by Reese Witherspoon in the lead and Laura Dern as her mom, Bobbi. Witherspoon does her best work since her also-nominated turn in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Here, she manages to give an excellent portrayal of a woman struggling with her own existence. Dern just lights up the screen whenever she appears. Her natural charm fills every frame in which she's visible. From a visual standpoint, there is a bit of a problem. The two women appear too close in age. According to their Wikipedia pages they are, with only nine years between them. Luckily, they have enough chemistry to effectively hurdle that obstacle.

The other strength of the film is its look. Nature appears to do much of the work by being a willing and flawless model. However, cinematographer Yves Bélanger does a great job framing it for us. Flashbacks too her time with men and drugs are often stitched together using quick cuts resulting in small snippets of decadence mixed into our heroine's trek. Flashbacks to her mom utilize longer shots indicating times she remembers fondly and wants to hold onto. It all works together in service of the main character.


As much praise as I've heaped on Wild thus far, it's actually a film of which I'm not too fond. Almost right from the beginning I felt like I was watching a remake of another movie I didn't like, 2007's Into the Wild. The similarities start with the title and runs all through the DNA of both productions. Into the Wild gives us a reflective, but aimless person running from their problems using a method of running in which he has no experience. It's littered with flashback and oddball characters met along the way. At semi-regular intervals we get poetry in voice-over. Despite never actually dealing with any of the issues he's running from, and making some mighty dumb choices as he goes, it's framed as a triumphant journey. Wild is virtually a carbon copy, save for the fate of our protagonist. Every one of those things I mentioned about Into the Wild is present, here. Wild is even more egregious in its framing because in the course of building our heroine's hike, and even her backpack, as a metaphor for her life, the film credits it with her redemption instead of using it as a catalyst for the real work which must sure have followed it.

I may have given too much away right there, but I couldn't think of another way to get my point across. I suppose I could've said the movie oversimplifies things. That wouldn't be sufficient. I could also just blast it for affirming the idea that running from your problems is a viable solution. Before the film reaches its conclusion, the audience is set up for this by the one time Cheryl faces a legitimate physical threat. Like everything else, she simply outruns it. In the moment it is perfectly acceptable for her to do such a thing. In fact, it is precisely what she should do. However, in the larger context of the movie as a whole, it's part of a troublesome trend.

Wild is a movie that rides its strengths to make itself watchable. Wonderful acting and often gorgeous scenery keep us engaged. The building of Cheryl's backstory is also a major plus. It creates empathy in the viewer. This empathy is a big reason for us to stay with the film. Unfortunately, things unravel as we proceed. Taken on a purely surface level, it works okay. However, it clearly pushes the hike as a metaphor angle. The problem with this is that the assertions it makes within this framework crumbles beneath the slightest scrutiny.

22 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed Wild, but I do agree with everything you've said here. Apart from the bit about Into the Wild. But that's only because I've never seen Into the Wild, ha! I'd be interested to see it now as a comparison :)
    - Allie

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    1. Thanks. A lot of people loved Into the Wild. I hated it because the main character was evrn dumber. I didn't hate this.

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  2. I agree with everything you said here. I enjoyed this far more than I expected to.I wish Thomas Sadoski had been in it a bit more. He's a fine actor.

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    1. Thanks. Not sure if I have seen him in anything else. I will be on the lookout.

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  3. I agree with your praise - the craft of Wild is incredibly strong on just about every level. Some of the finest cinematography, editing, and sound work of last year. And Reese is just wonderful (I thought she and Dern looked just far apart enough in age to work). I disagree about the film simplifying things to the extent you thought, though. Maybe it's because I didn't find the ending to be as transcendent as it looked like it wanted to be, but I appreciated how the hike forced Cheryl to really think about her past and the mistakes she made and how she wants to live going forward, and don't think it actually resolved anything. How it read to me was that the end of the hike represented a new beginning - now that she's accomplished something, and dealt with her baggage along the way, she can really start living her life.

    Really well-written piece!

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    1. Very good points about it being a new beginning. I can definitely accept that interpretation. Thanks!

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  4. I'm pretty much in whole agreement with you. I liked this, sort of, but as time has passed, the flaws become glaring.

    Excellent review!

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  5. Good review and I agree with a goodly deal of it. I love Reese and she was very strong in this, better I thought than Walk the Line where I thought she was fine but I didn't understand the awards attention...now Legally Blonde there she was completely brilliant! The picture is beautiful to look at as well.

    I saw the connections to Into the Wild too but while I didn't love this I liked it much more than the first. The main difference was that while the ending of Wild might have had a sense that Cheryl was a bit further along than she was her journey was ABOUT something. She was enduring what she did to try and get clarity about how she got to be who she was, a chance to reflect on her choices and to help her find out where she was going. That selfish git in Into the Wild was just an irresponsible, and unlikable, little tool. The only thing of value in the first was Hal Holbrook's nice vignette otherwise it was just a slog with no purpose and Emile Hirsch's bland performance never pulled me in to whatever his character was after. In Wild maybe because of Reese's magnetism or just that there was a point to the protagonist's story I was much more involved.

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    1. And that is why I hate Into the Wild. This, I didn't hate.

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  6. "The best thing about Wild is the two Academy Award nominated performances by Reese Witherspoon in the lead and Laura Dern as her mom, Bobbi." I agree. I also agree about the look. The framing and editing are both perfect here. But I really loved this movie. Way more than you seem to. This is just plain not a "carbon copy" of Into the Wild. Into the Wild was about a spoiled rich kid with daddy issues giving an FU to the man, literally and figuratively (something that touched me way more when I was 22 in 2007 than it does now). Wild is far superior to Into the Wild because it is more about the protagonists internal conflict. She is not redeemed at the end. She is finally ready to make next step. This made my top ten of last year. It just hit me so hard in so many places. I also loved the running motif of Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)". Brilliant song choice! Great review, man. Even if we don't see it the same way.

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    1. "Carbon Copy" might have been a bit strong, but they are two films definitely built from the same material. Though I don't love Wild, I will agree that it is superior to Into the Wild for the same reasons you stated. And probably since I was quite a bit past 22 when that one came out, it never touched me.

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    2. I think the most memorable thing about Into the Wild, other than Hal Holbrook's sweetness, is the Eddie Vedder tunes. I wore that soundtrack out, man! Anyway, you are right about the two films being "built from the same material." The whole soul searching in the wilderness even though I have no idea what I'm doing deal. I think I like something about that, despite the sort of obviousness about it.

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    3. For me, the memorable part was the poetry, mostly, if not all, written by Sharon Olds. She's one of my favorites so I had read all of them before. Since she's a deeply confessional poet, it was interesting, strange even, to hear them in the context of someone's life other than hers.

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  7. These type of movies don't interest me. With Into the Wild, I remember thinking he abandoned his sister and needed to do more for her. Probably not what I was supposed to take from the film ha. I'm sure this will inspire me a lot of people mind. Two very good actors too.

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    1. That's not what you were supposed to take away from Into the Wild, but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than what they wanted you get out of it.

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  8. Lovely review! I wasn't expecting to like this as much as I did. I even think I preferred it to Dallas Buyers Club. We'll see.
    Witherspoon and Dern were excellent.

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    1. I much preferred it to DBC. Other than Leto's performance, I didn't care much for it.

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  9. I do love Wild, I've watched it quite a few times already this year, it's one of those films that I just know I'll be able to watch it again. Didn't like Into The Wild though, I hate how it's portrayed as some kind of excellent film for inspiring solo travel and I'm like "HELLO did you not see the end??" A friends of mine put it in a good way when he said "watching the film is a bit of a paradox because the nature and the landscapes are beautiful and it's supposed to make you want to go there, but his journey makes you feel the opposite." But with Wild... I dunno, I just liked it, it inspires me.

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    1. I completely understand. The endings of both do engender two very different emotions.

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  10. I was reluctant to watch this movie when it was in theatres. I don't trust Witherspoon anymore. Your review is making me glad that I missed it

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    1. Yeah, I just don't think it's anywhere near as good as people are making it out to be.

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