Wild traces emotional and physical journey

Her weathered face suggests she has been outdoors for some time, while her eyes define her purpose. Suddenly, accidentally, her hiking boot slips down a ravine, out of reach. How will she be able to continue her journey through the wild?

With anger, candor and resolve, Reese Witherspoon communicates the essence of woman creating her own change in this opening sequence of Wild, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. While the character lets us know any land she may travel will not dominate her, the actress makes it clear that any questions about her ability to tell this story are as useful as that old boot. This woman is on screen for a purpose.

Wild gives Witherspoon a reason to be proud. As a producer, she makes it possible for Strayed’s inspirational story to transfer to the screen without losing its integrity to the formulas of Hollywood movie making. As the star who appears in almost every frame, Witherspoon brings to life the baggage a woman carries on her back as she begins a next-to-impossible hike of 1,100 miles along the Pacific Coast Trail. That the actress can sustain our interest over the miles is a credit to her command; that she does so without resorting to her patented shtick demonstrates how much she has grown in recent films.

As Wild begins, Strayed is a less-than-likely candidate to complete such a demanding journey. Physically, there’s little reason to believe this woman who indulges in self-destructive behavior could endure the challenge. Emotionally, we learn that her life is a collection of bad decisions that back her into a personal corner without many possibilities for escape. Her only chance to rediscover herself is to succeed at something that many would find impossible. As she stretches what she can accomplish with her body she confronts what haunts her heart. And we’re not sure which journey — physical or emotional — will be more difficult.

Witherspoon makes us believe every moment, from her scenes on the hike to her flashbacks with husband Thomas Sadoski, best friend Gaby Hoffmann and, especially, with her mother played by the wonderful Laura Dern. Their scenes of caring and confrontation ring true as they reveal the realities of a complex mother-daughter relationship. With minimal dialogue and maximum expression, the actresses offer a study in how performers with presence make moments work.

Jean-Marc Vallee — who directed Matthew McConaughey to an Oscar last year in Dallas Buyer’s Club — pushes Witherspoon to a new level of depth in her craft. Rarely has she been so spontaneous and natural. Her past performances — from Legally Blonde to her Oscar-winning Walk the Line — could be trapped in mannerisms. As her supporting roles in Mud and the upcoming Inherent Vice reveal a natural actress focusing on character, Witherspoon digs into Strayed’s soul with precision and passion. And while Wild would benefit from more detail about the character’s physical journey, Witherspoon fills in all the colors in the emotional path.

Watching an actress capture a screen can be thrilling. By taking so many strong steps — and daring to leave her familiar persona behind — Reese Witherspoon leaves us believing we get to spend two hours with an extraordinary woman. Because we do.

Film Nutritional Value

Wild

* Content: High. As an exploration of a woman’s soul, and the truth many must confront, Wild offers welcome insight along its 1,100-mile journey.

* Entertainment: High. As with any films that focuses on one character, Wild relies on the impact of Reese Witherspoon’s performance. And the actress makes us believe.

* Message: High. Wild reminds us that life is something to be lived not a sentence to be completed. And some days challenge more than others.

* Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with older children about the changes that people confront can be useful.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: High. You and your older children can use this film to prompt meaningful conversation about confronting the need to change.

Wild is rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language. The film runs 115 minutes.

4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets

Behind the Screen

Each week — exclusive to online readers of Arts and Leisure — Mark Schumann, The Reel Dad, looks “behind the screen” at the world of film. This week he looks at how the movies like to tell stories of people who confront the wilderness, as inspired by this week’s feature, Wild.

Movies about people who confront remote environments give moviemakers the chance to be visual and actors the opportunity to perform. From outer space to the far reaches on earth, these films explore the journeys that people take — as in Wild — to tame their surroundings and their souls.

Robert Redford creates a fascinating look at a man facing his demise in the overlooked All is Lost for which he won the 2013 award from the New York Film Critics for Best Actor. The film begins with the actor’s voice, that distinctive, natural, unassuming sound that has filled movie theaters for almost 50 years. Time has given his familiar tones striking depth, as if with each year a vocal chord weathers with wisdom. His words, of a man looking for redemption, asking his family for forgiveness, strike a chord with any of us who travel as many miles. Little do we realize, as All is Lost opens, that we will only hear this character speak a handful of words through the film. Nor that we will not have to endure the predictable use of the flashback to fill in the spaces of his character’s backstory. Instead this recreational sailor, listed as “our man” in the credits, fills the film by himself, without dialogue, and sparing the background details of his life. Instead, relying on an actor we always knew had at least one more superlative performance yet to give, the film tells us everything we need to know as this man tries to save his life after a sailing accident in the middle of the sea.

While Redford looks for himself in the water, Sandra Bullock searches for her soul in space in Gravity, the blockbuster hit from last year for which she was nominated for an Oscar. What could have been a routine story about a person in peril becomes — in the precision of Bullock’s matter-of-fact performance and the steady hand of director Alfonso Cuaron’s visual sense — a thrilling investigation of how people can dig into themselves to discover the resolve to survive. By focusing on the details of Bullock’s environment, and giving us a sense of the fear of being lost in such a vast wilderness, Cuaron forces us to consider how we might handle a less dramatic situation. Few of us will ever be lost in space but we can still get lost. Bullock reminds us that, to find our way home, we need a strong purpose, a sense of humor, and the good sense to recognize our limitations. She makes the message and the film work.

How a man can feel overwhelmed by his environment — before being forced to consider the drastic steps that may be needed to survive — brings the romance of the outdoors to a crashing halt in the tension-filled 127 Hours. Based on the experiences of Aron Ralston, the film follows a young man who casually hikes through the canyons near Moab, Utah. When he literally gets caught between a rock and hard place, and his recreational journey could turn to tragedy, the man reflects on what life can mean as he tried to keep it going. Director Danny Boyle — as he did with Slumdog Millionnaire — connects the man to the environment with strong suspicion and complete respect as Ralston ultimately realizes who is actually in charge. And Franco’s sense of humanity authenticity makes us believe in the choices this man must make.

Some of the choices in Deliverance can still be challenging to understand more than 42 years after the film was released. Based on the novel by James Dickey, this exploration of a dark side of the relationship of man and environment dares to question if people should intrude on the rhythm that sustains and protects such a special part of the world. Director John Boorman immerses his cast — including Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds — into the environment they must confront as if transplanting sensitive matter into a foreign substance. When these men realize this may be more than a casual trip to the countryside — and learn why they must respect the surroundings — Boorman reminds us that security can be elusive, a welcome can be misunderstood and no amount of bravado can protect. As these men learn, there’s a reason some people are considered strangers, and why souvenirs of some vacations may last too long.

Because movies about the wilderness offer so many storytelling possibilities, they will continue to appeal to moviemakers. As we experience in Wild, these films — when in the right hands — give us so a lot to think about.

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