by Brian Surber
“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail…” The first lines uttered in Jean-Marc Vallee’s new film, Wild, represents not only the mindset of it’s heroine but the mindset of the film itself. Here is a film with a familiar premise (mentally damaged, almost broken person sets out Into the Wild to find one’s self), familiar motifs (flashbacks revealing the back story throughout the film), and the grand Brava performance by its lead actor who shares the screen with barely anyone else (Emile Hirsch, Sandra Bullock, Robert Redford). Yet Wild somehow manages to transcend these tropes, providing the audience with air just as fresh as its character breaths, and proving that it has what it takes, just like it’s heroine, to not only be the hammer but make sure that the nail never comes back up.
We live during a time when actresses are praised for not wearing makeup and men are rewarded for gaining weight for a role. A time when playing outside your comfort zone or playing while not looking your best means the actress was “brave.” It’s difficult, then, to really qualify what makes a performance like this special, raw, or brave. Reese Witherspoon is a talented actress; from Legally Blonde to Walk the Line (for which she won an Oscar), from her lesser-known performances in Election andVanity Fair. Her performance in Wild is not only the greatest performance of her 23-year-career, but it’s also the exact type of performance that deserves to be called “brave.”
As Cheryl Strayed, Witherspoon delivers a performance that is mesmerizing. She lives and breathes this person, capturing the essence of a soul that is clinging to anything resembling hope. It’s masterful work. And it’s a performance worth calling “brave” because it’s something we’ve never seen before from Ms. Witherspoon. She takes herself to places we’ve never seen her go before. And this isn’t about the “dark” aspects of the films story involving the sex and drug use, this isn’t about the first onscreen nudity from her since she was younger, and this isn’t all that hiking she had to do. This is about her exploring a character’s psyche and showing us all aspects of her being, physical and mental. The performance is subtle and tender. From it’s loudest (“showiest) moments to the quiet ones, she is in control. It’s magnificent.
The film is directed with daring grace by Jean-Marc Vallee whose last film, Dallas Buyers Club, was a big disappointment; getting too lost in a David vs. Goliath story. Here he triumphs in keeping his focus small and personal. The film glides us through Cheryl’s story with ease and sensitivity. The scenery is beautiful (duh) and the camera work is very fragile. Just as the Cheryl’s life hangs delicately so moves Vallee’s camera.
The true story, about a woman who goes on a 1000 mile hike after her mother’s death and her destructive behavior, is expressed through the film in a non-linear narrative. We get bits and pieces of Cheryl’s past told as if it was being remembered, because it is. Cheryl hears phrases and sees images that bring back memories, exactly as it is when we remember something. Information is revealed as Cheryl goes about her journey. We learn about her as she learns about herself.
Wild represents exhausting, exhilarating, emotionally resonant filmmaking. It presents a journey that none of us want to go through, either emotionally or physically, but one that might be required. It’s a film that feels familiar and uses those expectations to surprise us, carry us, and inspire us. Such is life. Wild sets out, much like its main character, to be the hammer. It’s a wonderful and enriching surprise that it, like it’s main character, succeeds.