A female hiker with bleeding feet howls in the wilderness as one of her ill-fitting boots plunges into the abyss; so begins Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir recounting her efforts to reverse the downward spiral that had become her life by hiking a thousand miles (or more) of the Pacific Coast Trail.
Her journey through this occasionally treacherous physical and spiritual landscape toward some kind of redemption is the basis of a solid, emotionally engaging film. There are several reasons to see Wild even if you’re not a Reese Witherspoon fan (although it helps). For one thing, this is not the Witherspoon equivalent of Robert Redford’s All is Lost (good as that was); in this case, there is a nicely structured screenplay by Nick Hornby which is layered with flashbacks depicting Strayed’s fraying relationship with her soon to be ex-husband, as well as her loving relationship with her mother (the luminous Laura Dern). Ms. Dern is nothing sort of wonderful as the mom who has made a conscious choice to improve herself and “not let the bastards get her down.” Unfortunately for Witherspoon, being deprived of this relationship is the catalyst for what amounts to a drug-induced sex spree, and ultimately, her soul-cleansing journey.
While the flashbacks are skillfully integrated into the narrative, some of the best scenes show Witherspoon dealing with the natural and manmade hazards of the journey itself; wrestling with her obscenely oversized pack while neglecting to include certain essentials causes her to go hungry and depend on the kindness of strangers. Witherspoon’s wariness in her initial encounter with a presumably helpful worker, as well as others along the trail, provide both tension and humor. There are also the scenes involving fellow hikers, who are impressed with both her fortitude and her literary prowess (as in the quotes she leaves at the markers). All these scenes seem genuine and unforced, so that when Cheryl gets to the end of her journey, we feel, in Witherspoon’s capable hands (and feet), that she has earned some peace.
Peace is in short supply in Foxcatcher, an intense drama loosely based on millionaire John du Pont’s misbegotten efforts to restore American pride by enticing the best wrestlers to his estate (Foxcatcher, hence the title) to create a world-class wrestling team that would compete at the World Wrestling Championships and the Olympics. To that extent, in the movie du Pont (Steve Carell) hires a sullen, withdrawn Olympic gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to train the team. Mark, who has been living in the shadow of his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), is initially wary, and then later embraces the possibility of establishing his own identity. And all is well at Foxcatcher—until du Pont expresses an interest in also hiring Dave…
While the events in the movie don’t necessarily coincide with the facts (especially in the movie’s timeline), what’s on the screen is a powerful depiction of pride, betrayal, paranoia, and corruption in an environment as gray as the lives they depict. Channing Tatum doesn’t miss a beat as Mark, a powerful man rendered powerless by his own insecurities; Steve Carell (after initially seeming to be acting mainly with his false nose), emerges as an Oscar contender with his nuanced portrayal of du Pont, whose obsessions with American pride, wrestling, and the power of money still render him helpless in the face of his critical, condescending mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Mark Ruffalo again demonstrates why he is one of our finer actors by effortlessly portraying Dave Schultz as a compassionate older brother who is desperately trying to ease his younger sibling’s misery, without realizing he is a key part of it. The culminating violent act in Foxcatcher, while not explained, seems inevitable, without losing any of its requisite power.