Monday, December 15, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Reese Witherspoon in the 'Wild.'
You can give high marks for belief in the power of self-discovery and mental healing through nature represented in “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of a 1,000 mile agonizing  trek  through desert and hills restoring her sense of worth and family.

Normally a vehicle commissioned for and funded by a celebrity name like Reese Witherspoon would not insist on such fidelity in using cinematic techniques to explore the facts. If only belief in the message automatically translated into artistry.

The movie uses  every established repertory of time-shifting and languorous landscape loving, of alternating long and tight dark and light shots, of varying trail and camp  locales, of  fast cut and slow cut  contrasts, of samples of great pop tunes, of  using the lines of literary poetry that drive Cheryl along as devices to keep us engaged.

By suppressing any impulse toward glamorization and almost relishing the pain Witherspoon goes through hauling her monster backpack and bleeding feet up and down the wilderness trails, director Jean-Marc Valee has prevented a vanity outing. But he is almost showing off his training in tried and true cinematic contrivances. Witherspoon provides a surface faithfulness and vulnerability that her fans may confuse with deep acting.

The film also benefits from an ensemble perfectly cast to fit the needs, including a progression of hikers and outdoor types who embrace or frighten Cheryl on her journey. The matter of fact honesty of Thomas Sadowski as her abandoned husband (the actor is a regular on “The Newsroom”) is pleasant, though he may well long for the writing magic provided on TV by Aaron Sorkin rather than the strands of naturalness left him here by screenwriter Nick Hornby.

The film also depends on the luminescence of Laura Dern -- a fleeting but powerful presence whose simple smiling behavior explains Cheryl’s devotion to her departed mother and how that loss plunged her into heroin and sex before she finds holistic redemption through physical self-reliance.

That journey is not something to make light of.  In fact, the movie holds us in a suspense warring with boredom for an hour, disguising why Cheryl has taken such an extreme hiking path, complaining all the way, only fully developing her motives in a stronger final 45 minutes than the total two hours we are subjected to.

This testing of our patience by relying on star names and hidden developments (cancer, pill abuse and other ailments are powerful audience grabbers) has become something of a trend in 2014 movies that raise their heads at awards time.

There is a strange parallel to another recent outing, “The Judge,” which is an unabashed vanity vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., whose antic sardonic talents are best taken when hidden behind the name Sherlock or within  a suit of Iron, but here are indulged as a nasty lawyer forced to help his Indiana clan.

But this overblown family drama combined with courtroom thriller relies on secrets and twists in plotting far less convincing than “Wild.” And it leans even more heavily than “Wild” on holding back revelations and on our affection and admiration for the acting skills of Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and vignettes from Denis O’Hare, Ken Howard and Billy Bob Thornton.

An important message about family reconciliation and handling grief becomes an excuse for extended catering to our time and money with charismatic actors struggling to manufacture characters out of cardboard. It is another tug-at-the-heartstrings trend we can do without.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at