Friday, December 05, 2014

Austin Film Festival Review: "Wild"

Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Director Jean-Marc Vallée struck gold last year (or rather his actors did, as “Dallas Buyers Club” netted gold Oscar statuettes for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), and it’s certainly possible the star of his newest film, Reese Witherspoon, could do the same come next February. Regardless of her Oscar chances, Witherspoon delivers a layered and emotionally resonant performance in “Wild,” an adptation of the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed. She carries the film for long stretches of its nearly two-hour running time, as she occasionally is the only actor on screen.

As a prior Academy Award winner (portraying another real-life personality as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line”), Witherspoon has shown the ability to be a focal point of movies. The “Legally Blonde” films demonstrate that very well. But she’s never had to take on such a physical role before, which had to appeal to her as an actress. Indeed, the material itself was obviously attractive to Witherspoon in the first place, as she serves as one of the film’s producers.

The physical aspects of the film center around Strayed’s decision to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, covering the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon up to the Washington state border. A serious hiking challenge for anyone, the journey was complicated by the fact that Strayed, 26 years old at the time, had no prior backpacking experience. Just as Strayed herself likely didn’t, the movie has no problem poking fun at her naiveté on the trail, adding in some unexpected, but welcome, humor along the way.

Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, the movie smartly maintains a lot of its focus on the hike, while interspersing Strayed’s journey with flashbacks to what had led her to this moment in time. It allows for shadings on who Strayed was and is to be sprinkled thoughout the story, including interactions with her mother (passionately portrayed by Laura Dern) and her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski).

The movie doesn’t whitewash Strayed’s troubled past, but doesn’t linger on it, either. Witherspoon finds the humanity and determination in Strayed’s journey towards self-discovery, but avoids the temptation of making her a symbolic role model. In fact, there are times during the movie you probably won’t even like Strayed, as she makes some self-destructive decisions that could have ruined her life.

“Wild” is frequently beautiful to look at, as Vallée and his cinematographer Yves Bélanger capture the beauty and seemingly endless landscapes of parts of the Pacific Northwest. And good luck getting Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” out of your head after the movie, as strains of it play frequently. I saw the film more than six weeks ago, and I still have it rattling around in my brain, much like Witherspoon’s performance.

Grade: A-

(Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language. Now playing in select cities and opens wider throughout December and January.)

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