Thursday, December 25, 2014

Movie Review: "Wild"

I have been a fan of Reese Witherspoon for years, since I saw her in her film debut, The Man in the Moon, almost 25 years ago. Nearly all of her performances, particularly those for which she's most known, have an inner pluckiness which helps her characters overcome the challenging situations they find themselves in. While I don't have a problem with that in general, sometimes I feel as if I'm watching her play the same parts over and over, despite enjoying watching her.

But with Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir recounting her 1,100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, Witherspoon is at times an absolute mess, at times fighting to keep afloat, and it's definitely one of the strongest performances she's given in her career.

Following the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern), Strayed's life completely unravels. She feels utterly empty, and tries to fill that void by sleeping with various men (much to the chagrin of her husband) and experimenting with drugs. When she feels as if she's about to hit rock bottom, she decides to challenge herself with a solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, from California to Oregon. She's never really hiked that much, and she has no idea what she's getting herself into—which is easy to see with the first glimpse you get at her gigantic pack (nicknamed "The Monster" by a fellow hiker).

While she has the opportunity to be alone with her thoughts and revel in the beauty of nature around her, she also tries to figure out how she let her life go so off course, and wishes she had the opportunity to be the woman her mother always thought she could be. She has to face harrowing conditions and more physical aches and pains than she could ever imagine, and every encounter she has with other hikers or people she meets has the possibility of being fraught with peril. But this is a journey of self-discovery, and an opportunity to regain the faith in herself she so desperately needs.

Strayed's hike is interspersed with flashbacks of her childhood, being raised in a home with an alcoholic, abusive father, and then watching her mother struggle to make ends meet for her and her younger brother as they live on their own. But despite the bleakness of the situation, Strayed's mother never lost her zeal for life, her positive attitude, and her desire to be the best person she could be, and this frustrated and confused Cheryl more times than she could count. How could her mother not just give up? How could she not want to curl up into a ball, or do something self-destructive, instead of soldiering on each day and trying to better herself and her children?

I didn't read Strayed's book, but I expected it to be a little more Eat Pray Love-ish than the more introspective and inspirational story that it was. While obviously I knew that Strayed survived her hike in order to write about it, I watched most of the movie half expecting some crisis to befall her while on the trail. But little did I realize that the crises were mostly her own, having to come to terms with feeling she disappointed her mother and didn't know how she'd be able to go on after she was done with her hike.

Dern gives a beautiful, charismatic performance, as does Thomas Sadoski in his few scenes as Strayed's ex-husband. But this movie belongs to Witherspoon, as for most of it, she's the only one on screen. Her performance is raw, nuanced, emotional, yet restrained, and is simply mesmerizing. As much as I loved her in movies like Legally Blonde and Election, this is the movie which truly demonstrates the depth of her talent, and this is a performance absolutely worthy of an Oscar nomination. (More so, in my opinion, than the role she won for, in Walk the Line.)

While Wild is a little slow to start (much as Strayed was at the beginning of her hike), as it picks up steam, it picks up emotion, depth, and heart. It's a movie that makes you think as it tugs at your emotions.

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