January 20

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Wild – Reece Witherspoons real woman. (Film Review)

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Note: I originally placed reviews for Wild and Tracks next to each other in my publication scedule, because I thought they may be similar films (with Tracks coming out a full year earlier) but after seeing Wild, I realised they’re very different films, with very different female leads. They are as different as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (also brought out within a year of each other) and I realise now, it was a mistake to imagine they should be placed together. See them both – they’re worth it.

So many things about Wild shouldn’t have worked, and yet the final whole is so cohesive, the film feels strangely rewatchable. Nick Hornby’s screenplay has its moments – it’s definitely better on the trail than in the flashbacks that occur a little too often – but it’s Reece Witherspoon that makes Wild such an unforgettable film. Sheryl Strayed is a deeply interesting woman living out a complex response to the death of her mother, and if the film is a little odd on the mother daughter relationship, Witherspoon makes up for it with a nuanced performance that brings us very close to the heart of what Strayed might have been going through. Produced by the much chatted about Pacific Standard (Witherspoon’s production company started four years ago to specifically address the problem of a lack of decent film roles for women) it’s exciting to see her come up with the goods with a film that gives her a juicy role that she makes the most of.

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And what a role! Sheryl Strayed is so real woman, I didn’t realise how rarely I see that on the big screen. She is very much an every woman, intelligent (but not profoundly gifted) pretty (but not jaw droppingly gorgeous) high-spirited (but filled with fear) troubled (but trying to get her shit together) and trying to find a way to live according to the principles her mother instilled in her. It is tired and boring that I have to write a paragraph like that in 2015, but that comes as a surprise even to myself. We forget how poorly women are depicted on the big screen,  therefore the most simply constructed realities become something extraordinary in Wild. We may have seen Sheryl Strayed’s on the big screen before, but far too little of them. So little, in fact that they fall into the category of cliché or trope, when familiar male subjects are never treated with the same condescension. Sheryl Strayed will take on a walking journey of the PCT (Pacific Crest trail) Henry David Thoreau style and come to her own mini epiphany about her life, retaining a respect and dignity never included in films like Eat, Pray Love. Wild is worlds away from that sort of film.

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Then there are the things that shouldn’t have worked in Wild, such as the fox staring at her from the forest with its head tiled in an enquiring fashion, and the tedious flashbacks. Laura Dern manages a deep character study as a very ordinary woman who knows how to find pleasure in her day when all choices have been taken from her, despite a rather thinly written collection of clichés. But Jean-Marc Vallée keeps his filming simple and flashbacks are done in sporadic bursts, very similar to the way we understand memory to work, and the effect works at times and really doesn’t at others. We do get used to it, it seems to be less on the nose as the story progresses, but that could also be because Witherspoon and Dern have so taken us into their souls that we’re more willing to forgive.

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The flashbacks might be more Nick Hornby’s idea than Vallée, its difficult to tell, but part of the problem is while some insights into Sheryl’s mind are bludgeoned, others are so subtle, they can be easily misunderstood. This might be Vallée, because I remember Café de Flore’s music motifs being strangely difficult to pick up on, and he was accused then of a faux spirituality that I strongly felt was missing the point. When Sheryl looks at the fox in the snow, she’s not reenacting a spiritual scene from The Simpsons, she is imposing spiritualism on her surroundings – as many women do in a crises – but we’re offered the image as cliché, rather than as insight into Sheryl’s state of mind. It’s not a position women defend, but it is a default mechanism that women find they fall into, and Wild depicts this state with near perfection,  but we see it so rarely, its easy to impose an alternate meaning over the top. It’s almost as if Vallée knows what he wants to say, but isn’t quite sure how to say it.

But the stand out of Wild is easily Witherspoon’s performance, and as much as I hate to admit it, because I’m really hating the awards season this year, on behalf of her (because It’s good for her production company) It’s good that she was nominated for best actress. This is by far the stand out role of her career, a role she’s made happen on her own, and a role we didn’t even know we were desperate to see. I found the film more interesting as it progressed, and felt deeply connected to the protagonist by the end. Wild might not be the best film of 2014, but it is one of the best performances.

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