A beautiful, emotionally rich filmBottom Highlights, Movie Review Thursday, December 11th, 2014
Since Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, she has done very little to be proud of: doing bad movies, getting arrested and so on. But this year, the fruits of her renewed labor can be seen in Gone Girl, which she produced, and Wild, which she produced and stars in. She could potentially receive three Academy Award nominations this year, two for producing those quite fine films and one for acting. I think it’s safe to say the nomination for Best Actress is a lock, and I hope Wild itself gets the votes, too, because it’s a beautiful, emotionally rich film and one of my favorites of the year.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir the movie is based on. The book is partly autobiography and partly the story of her six month trek of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. That she walked the trail isn’t as impressive – it’s been done by many people – as the fact that she walked it alone with very, very little hiking experience. The film and the book also explain why doing this is so powerfully cathartic to Cheryl; she has just extracted herself from a failed marriage, an addiction to heroin and some extravagantly self-destructive habits that seem to have been a failed coping mechanism to deal with the grief over losing her mother. While Cheryl walks and hikes and gets blisters and nearly starves and narrowly escapes rape and hypothermia, her earlier life is shown in flashbacks, many of which feature a luminous Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother.
The film is a story about triumphing over adversity and it’s a travelogue, and this makes for simple, if not obvious, storytelling. In hands lesser than screenwriter Nick Hornby’s I doubt the story would be as tightly and carefully told. But director Jean-Marc Vallée, whose direction made Dallas Buyer’s Club vastly better than its screenplay, took Hornby’s script and crafted a visual and emotional experience that goes far beyond the words, either Hornby’s or Strayed’s. Working with the genius cinematographer Yves Bélanger (who could easily have won Oscars for either Dallas Buyer’s Club or Laurence, Anyways), Vallée dwells on the beauty of the landscapes without sentimentalizing, shows Cheryl’s bad habits without being prurient and guides Witherspoon and Dern to flawless and naturalistic performances that could have easily gone the way of histrionic and pandering.
Vallée’s great work should be praised and rewarded, but Witherspoon and Dern are why the film is so moving. Cheryl’s experience, from grief to pride and from shame to redemption, is vast, and Witherspoon portrays the shifts, the details and ugly honesty of it all. Her versatility and charisma in this role remarkable; it’s much more impressive than the work that got her an Oscar. Dern is even better. As Cheryl’s ridiculously cheerful mother – cheerful despite poverty, despite a violent husband, despite cancer – Dern is heroic and ecstatic and as beautiful as any of the nature beauty on the Pacific Crest Trail.
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