Friday, 23 January 2015

Movie Review: Wild (2015)

Alexander And The Horribly Long Title may have shown a weak justification for why I wanted to see a movie, but I think this makes a new bar to reach. I thought that, after I started taking real notice of the people behind films, this kind of thing would be behind me but apparently not. I wasn’t anxious to see this because of director Jean-Marc VallĂ©e, who directed last year’s excellent Dallas Buyers Club. Nor was I excited about this because of writer Nick Hornby, who is the lyricist on Ben Folds’ Lonely Avenue, one of my favourite albums. Instead, it was because the Beck song featured in the film’s trailer was stuck in my head for several days prior to eventually seeing the film. So, with Turn Away still blaring inside my head, time to dig into today's film in my usual scatterbrained fashion: This is Wild.

The plot: Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), in the hopes of mending herself after several years of different varieties of hell, decides to take a thousand mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. As she encounters other travelers along the way and reminisces about her past, Cheryl begins to forge her way ahead, both on the hike and on her own path.

This is a Nick Hornby script which can only mean one thing: Music! Yeah, this film has a lot of moments that put emphasis on music, whether in the soundtrack or otherwise. Whether it’s a car full of Stevie Ray Vaughn fans that pick up Cheryl hitchhiking, the only time I’ve heard Portishead’s Glory Box outside of my mother’s stereo or the second best use ever of a 4 Non Blondes song, this film wears songs on its sleeves and they often make for very emotional gripping scenes. There’s a scene where a boy sings Red River Valley to Cheryl which is… not gonna lie, kind of painful to listen to as a song. However, the film manages to warp it into something truly powerful when assisted by Witherspoon’s performance and some very nimble editing. The writing also features a lot of dry humour weaved in throughout, often at the expense of Cheryl and her inexperience with hiking. It’s rare that a book burning joke can make me laugh as much as the one in this film did. It’s easily some of the most naturally funny dialogue (or monologue in a lot of cases) I’ve heard in a while, showing that Hornby’s sense of genuine human action and reaction hasn’t dulled in the slightest.

However, that’s not to say that the writing is perfect as there are some definite sticking points in this otherwise sharp script. For one, there’s an odd motif of a fox that crops up from time to time during the hike which gave a heavy vibe of ‘spirit animal’, which in turn gave a vibe of ‘is this still a thing?’ and ‘why oh why am I seeing this?’ due to how hokey the idea has always been and still is. There’s also the matter of the writer for the Hobo Times that appears roughly a third of the way into the movie. Now, given how this is something that actually happened during Cheryl’s hike, I can’t put too much blame on Nick for this one and the scene itself is admittedly pretty funny. However, because of how disjointed it feels against the rest of the film, I still feel the need to question its place in this film; it’s a matter of importance of theme weighed against importance of entertainment, which essentially makes it a non-issue, but all the same it felt out of place. Not quite as out of place as Kabuki Cinderella, but it was damn close. The writing overall, while thematically centered on human discovery and discovery of self, doesn’t contain anything all that new in terms of message. It serves more as a reminder than a revelation but, to be fair, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes, we do need to be reminded by an outside source of what’s right in front of us already. The ending is also kind of lackluster, especially considering how emotionally resonant the bulk of the film is, but in a statement that makes me want to cave in my own head with a deodorant can, it makes sense considering the film is all about the journey rather than the destination. I should be arrested for crimes against the written word for being that trite, but it’s true.

I may be defending quite a few of the script’s shortcomings, but in reality these are mostly nitpicks and don’t detract from the film in any major way… especially when in comparison to a certain incident that occurs that pulled me right out of the film for a time. It involves Cheryl, a hunter she encounters on the trail and some extremely uncomfortable and vile implications. While the film made light of the kind of paranoia that would make a hitchhiker worried about such things happening, even resulting in a pretty funny exchange earlier in the film, this scene opened the possibility of such an event actually happening in-story and retroactively made those more jocular scenes very unnerving to recall. It isn’t until a while later, when Cheryl encounters three fellow hikers at a post office, that the paranoia of such a scene occurring again is assuaged. Then again, given Cheryl’s own paranoia during that time, I’m still not sure if this is a bug or a feature. Nonetheless, it’s a rough patch to say the least.

The term ‘head trip’ is commonly used to describe experiences that take someone out of their own headspace, usually through psychedelic or abstract means. This film’s production and writing style gives that term a whole new meaning. The story of the hike itself is told in a linear fashion, save for the opening hook, with flashbacks peppered throughout. The way the flashbacks are set up, portrayed and edited, combined with how Cheryl’s monologue is written in response to them, gives a feel that what we are seeing on screen is what is playing in her head. Her inner monologue will occasionally spill into outer monologue and thoughts and comments connected to her memories will also be said out loud to no one in particular. As much as I would like to joke that a 1000 mile hike sounds more like a horror film to my ears than a straight drama, walking for that long mostly on your own would undoubtedly lead to a need for someone to talk to, even if no one is actually there. This is the only time I can remember seeing literal thinking out loud portrayed on film, and what’s more it’s actually done with a lot of finesse. The fact that Cheryl Strayed was very involved with the production of the film, and the obligatory end credits slideshow shows just how much attention to detail was put into this, adds further weight to this kind of in-depth character writing.

I feel a little odd having talked at this length about the film and not having yet gotten to Reese Witherspoon’s performance. Well, in the time-old tradition of saving the best for last, Reese is astounding in this film. You can see the genuine tiring feeling Cheryl would have experienced because Reese looks every bit of it, through all the sweat and squinting from the sun. Her annoyed comments at her situation, as well as the occasional giggles at her own expense, are delivered just right so that Hornby’s sense of humour in no way feels wasted. However, what shocked me most about her performance is how she was able to sell herself as a teenager, intercut with herself in the film’s present, and it not looking like Dawson casting gone wrong. While the make-up artists at work deserve definite props for being able to pull that off, as well as for the very visceral injuries Cheryl suffers during the hike, Reese does extraordinarily well at convincing the audience that she is indeed a teenager during those flashback scenes. As little importance as I place on the Oscars, Witherspoon is a strong contender for Best Actress.

All in all, this is a film that gives a very definite feeling that you are getting into the main character’s head with expert direction and great editing. Add to that Reese Witherspoon’s amazing performance as the lead and Nick Hornby’s organic dialogue and you have an oddly cerebral experience that never feels like it’s reaching beyond its grasp for emotional resonance. Then again, that might be because this film's grasp is far reaching as is. It’s better than Unbroken, as whatever issues I have with the writing here detract far less from the production as a whole as in that film. However, it doesn’t rank as high as Birdman, purely on the basis that that film tapped into something that felt more personal to me. This gets a big seal of approval from me, but then what do I know? “Some guy on the net thinks I don’t suck, and he should know; he’s got his own blog” isn’t exactly the most valid endorsement, but I’ll give it anyway.

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