Saturday, December 27, 2014

Traveling Women: Wild and Tracks

In Wild, Reese Witherspoon gives a fine, intelligent performance as Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who spent three months walking the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means of cleansing herself of the wayward, self-destructive life she’d been living, sleeping around and shooting heroin. It sounds like a showy, Oscar-bait role, but Witherspoon (who was also one of the producers) doesn’t play it that way; she keeps her wit sharp and her character carefully grounded in the grittiness of the material but not its (potential) melodrama. And that’s how the performance has been set up, first by novelist Nick Hornby, who adapted Strayed memoir, Lost: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, using a series of flashbacks to sketch in the life that led her here, and director Jean-Marc Vallée, who understates the sensational parts of her story. (He and Hornby restrict the drugs and the promiscuity to perhaps two slivers each of narrative.) Vallée is the Québecois filmmaker who made a splash – deservedly – in Canadian film circles with his 2005 coming-of-age picture C.R.A.Z.Y. and then went international with Young Victoria and last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. I loved Young Victoria, a gentle, complicated historical drama (also a coming-of-age story) but had mixed feelings about the other: engrossing and original as it was, it was pitched close to the melodramatic edge that Vallée is so cautious about steering clear of in Wild, and the film, as well as its two highly touted central performances (by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), kept tipping over that edge. The actors were splendid as long as they leaned away from it, toward the humor of their outrageous, opposite-number characters. I have no mixed emotions about Wild. The filmmaking – the way Vallée and his co-editor, Martin Pansa, slip almost subliminally in and out of the past – is stunning. (John Mac Murphy, credited as editor on both Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, is a pseudonym for Vallée.)

Before she sets out on her journey, Cheryl tells her best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman), “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Her mother Bobbi – Laura Dern’s beautiful portrayal is the film’s emotional center – was, she tells the therapist she sees briefly and unsuccessfully, the love of her life, and her death from cancer in her forties unhinges Cheryl. Bobbi survives an abusive, alcoholic husband (whom the filmmakers have wisely left out of the movie), raises Cheryl and her kid brother, and then goes back to school. She and her daughter are both attending the same college at the same time, which, in her early twenties, Cheryl finds embarrassing. In one of those painfully wrong-headed remarks we make to our parents as college students from some imagined higher intellectual plane and then generally cringe when we recall them, Cheryl comments that it must be weird for Bobbi that Cheryl is so much more sophisticated than she was at the same age. That was the plan, Bobbi explains, though, she adds, it hurts sometimes. Bobbi’s ebullience and optimism are the most positive influence in Cheryl’s life, which is the reason it breaks her heart (and ours) when the cancer cuts off both her attempt to claim the life she never got as a young woman and, along with it, that upbeat attitude. But it’s the qualities Cheryl grew up observing in her mother that inspire her anew when she finally gets fed up with her own life.

Laura Dern in Wild.

The episodic structure and the combination of road picture and triumph-of-the-spirit elements recall both Into the Wild (which, however, takes a tragic turn) and David Lynch’s tender 1999 The Straight Story, wherein an old man whose eyesight is no longer good enough for a driver’s license travels several hundred miles by riding mower to reconcile with his estranged, ailing brother. Among the figures Cheryl encounters along the Pacific Crest Trail are a driver (W. Earl Brown) who tells her that he’s quit lots of things in his life, like jobs and marriages, but that he never felt he had a choice: “There’s never been a fork in my road.” Kevin Rankin plays Greg, whom she comes across skinny-dipping in a stream; he’s the only other hiker she meets on the first leg of the trip, and she makes plans to cross paths with him again at the depot halfway up the trail. A black man named Jimmy Carter (“No relation,” he assures her), played by Mo McRae, wants to interview her for an article he’s writing about “hobos”; the term naturally offends her, and so does his crust when he takes her photo over her objections. She gets a ride with some hippies; there’s a memorial photo of their little boy, hit by a truck when he was eight, hanging from the rear-view mirror. (Strayed herself, in a plaintive cameo, plays the mother.) Charles Baker and J.D. Evermore are a pair of creeps she runs into in the woods, in a sequence that is more unsettling for the understatement with which Vallée renders it. At the other end of the spectrum, a park ranger (Brian Van Holt) whose inappropriate comments initially make us suspicious of him turns out to be benign and good-hearted. Michiel Huisman, who has had recurring roles on TV’s Treme and Nashville, shows up as a guy Cheryl meets near the end of her hike in Ashland, Oregon, who invites her to Jerry Garcia Night at a local club. My favorite vignette, though, is one in which a polite, forthright little boy walking on a forest path with his grandma sings “Red River Valley.” Like scenes that come to mind from both The Straight Story and Into the Wild, this encounter could be treacly in the hands of the wrong filmmaker.

The only thing in the picture I might have omitted are a few mystical visions Cheryl experiences – one of her mother, two of a fox that faces her off across the woodsy landscape. Even those show unerring visual control and a control of tone, just as the flashbacks do. In a few of them, talented Thomas Sadoski appears as Paul, to whom Cheryl was married for seven years and who tolerated her sexual escapades and the drugs for as long as he could. They’re still friends; he’s the first person she calls from the road. But one of the aims of her hike – though she doesn’t articulate it, and perhaps isn’t even fully conscious of it – is to move past that relationship (which also means to set him free). Sadoski is most likely familiar to many viewers from Aaron Sorkin’s HBO series The Newsroom, where he’s mostly stuck in cutesy-poo rom-com interludes with Olivia Munn, so it’s especially gratifying to see him in this small but well-written role.

Mia Wasikowska in Tracks.

Wild has been given a prestige-picture ad campaign, and since it’s one of the best movies of awards season, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I wish that some care had been taken, too, with the release of Tracks, which snuck in and out of an independent art house in the Boston area last fall and didn’t open at all in most places. Like Wild, it’s a true-life tale of a long walk taken by a young woman, Robyn Davidson (whose book is the basis of Marion Nelson’s screenplay) – in this case a 1700-mile hike across the West Australian desert with four wild camels and a dog. The underappreciated director John Curran, who filmed the most recent (2006) version of Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (starring Naomi Watts and Edward Norton), made this surprising and affecting little movie, which features magnificent cinematography by Mandy Walker and a superlative performance by Mia Wasikowska as the ferociously independent, socially retiring heroine. In the poster, Wasikowska is captured in a romantic moment with the weirdly likable Adam Driver, who plays a photographer sent periodically by National Geographic to shoot Robyn. Their relationship is short-lived (though it’s one of the sweetest parts of the film), but I wouldn’t have minded the somewhat misleading advertising if it had been seen by more people and led to some popular attention for Curran’s movie. Tracks was one of the highlights in a rather dim year.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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