(2014) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian van Holt, Cliff De Young, Mo McRae, Will Cuddy, Leigh Parker, Nick Eversman, Ray Mist, Randy Schulman, Cathryn de Prume, Kurt Conroyd, Ted De Chatelet, Jeffee Newman, Art Alexakis, Beth Hall. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Sometimes life throws things at us that we just can’t bear. We make bad choices because of it, go down paths we were never meant to explore and find ourselves lost. Few people can find their way back from these deviations from course.
Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) is a young 26-year-old woman starting an 1,100-mile hike on the rugged but beautiful Pacific Crest Trail which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian. She only plans on going from the southern terminus into Ashland, Oregon but it’s still a daunting prospect, considering she has virtually no experience whatsoever with long distance hiking.
Cheryl has had some tough times of late. Her mom (Dern) passed away suddenly of cancer. She descended into heroin addiction and unprotected sex with multiple partners. Her marriage to Paul (Sadoski) has ended in divorce. Her life was a mess and she knew it. She felt that she needed to clear all the toxins out of her system by “walking it out” as her mother would have put it. So she decided that, having seen a book on the trail in her local bookstore in Minnesota that this would be her best way to get herself out of the world for a little while, get herself right and move on with her life.
The way isn’t without challenges. Her first day only nets her five miles in a harsh desert climate – at that rate it would take her 220 days to finish her hike – or about 130 more than she thought. She has difficulty setting up her tent – it takes her hours. Then she figures out that she has purchased the wrong fuel for her cookstove, meaning that she’ll have to eat her dehydrated meals as a cold mush. Not particularly appealing. She’s also managed to get boots that are too tight and are causing some major issues.
There are other pitfalls as well, many of them human – men who want to get into her pants, by flattery or by force. She feels incredibly lonely and there is little to do but think about what got her there in the first place. With a bulldog-like persistence and a toughness that would surprise anyone who thought this petite blonde had any in her, she adapts and overcomes, winning over admirers on the trail – but the question is will this be enough to change her life?
Vallee, whose last film (Dallas Buyers Club) won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, might just repeat that feat here. Witherspoon with already one statuette to her credit for Walk the Line is absolutely wonderful here, eschewing Hollywood glamour for the realism of trail life and the tawdry existence that preceded it. She is in nearly every scene, often alone, This is her film to carry and carry it she does, imbuing Cheryl with vulnerability which eventually becomes an inner toughness.
Dern also turns in an award-worthy performance as the optimistic mom who has enough inner strength to raise two children alone after leaving an abusive alcoholic husband. She is reinventing herself when her life takes a tragic turn but for the most part she remains a breath of fresh air throughout, trying to soldier on despite having almost no money. She is representative of a million single moms out there, although I would have to say that I don’t think many would have the sort of life philosophy that Bobbi (Cheryl’s mom) had.
Vallee tells the story mainly through a sequence of flashbacks which take many different forms. Some are mere flashes, only lasting a second or two while others are fully formed scenes that play in Cheryl’s mind. Others are things her mind is on concurrent to the events of her hike, happening silently. Cheryl narrates from her journal and leaves messages at way stations, quoting diverse authors and poets. She becomes something of a celebrity on the trail, being one of the few women hiking alone and certainly the only one hiking alone on as much of it as she is.
The cinematography by Yves Belanger is breathtaking, but then again he has quite the canvas to work with. The music is simple and non-treacly, often using popular songs by artists like Paul Simon and the Hollies to pull the story along. Nick Hornsby’s script is smart and well-reasoned for the most part but one of the main objections I have to the movie is the lack of connection from A to B to C. We know that Cheryl sinks into a morass of alcohol, heroin and unprotected sex after her mom passes away but we don’t see how that happens; one moment she’s caring for her mom, the next she’s finding out she passed away, the next she’s sitting in a bar trolling for men and the next she’s shooting up. We see the descent in bits and pieces, like a book with pages missing. The ascent is much more drawn out.
While this isn’t the best film to come out in 2014, it has some of the best performances in it. Witherspoon alone is reason enough to catch this movie in theaters while it’s still out there – the scenery is also best seen on a big screen. Definitely one that should be on your must-see list this season.
REASONS TO GO: A searing performance by Witherspoon, nearly certain to get an Oscar nomination if not the win and Dern may well join her. Gorgeous cinematography. Incredible story.
REASONS TO STAY: Never really get a sense of why Cheryl moves from one mindset to another.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexual content, a fair amount of nudity, some drug use and a good deal of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Cheryl Strayed appears in the film as the woman driving the truck who drops off Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of the film. Also, the daughter of Cheryl Strayed plays Cheryl as a little girl in the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/3/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tracks
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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