Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée
Academy Award Nominations: Best Leading Actress & Best Supporting Actress.
This has been frequently compared to ‘Into the Wild’ with a female lead, but so was the 2013 Australian film ‘Tracks’ and it’s easy to see the strong similarities to that story too. What’s more difficult however is shaking that feeling that something’s missing and not quite right with the film.
Based on the autobiographical account by Cheryl Strayed who walked the Pacific Crest Trail on her own at a difficult period in her life. Showing both the hike and her life leading up to it, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) faces difficulties on the challenging journey and her personal struggle with everything that motivated her to embark upon it.
The film revolves around a strong central solo performance by Witherspoon, and her performance is very good, though I personally found the character of Strayed hard to relate to and not completely likeable. Right from the opening the film shows the hardest aspects of her challenge, though one of the reasons I think it’s so difficult to feel supportive of her at this point is that Strayed can’t seem to define why she has to walk a thousand miles. Her bag too heavy and she’s obviously not as well prepared as she needs to be, it’s clear through this that she’s somewhat inexperienced, all her kit is new and comes with instructions that she consults on-the-fly.
Inevitably the long walk leads Strayed to be alone with her own thoughts, dealing with memories both good and bad, regrets, a risky lifestyle of drugs and casual sex, and her relationships with her mother (Laura Dern) and ex (Thomas Sadoski ‘The Newsroom’). Various things remind her of her past, triggering flashbacks of various lengths. Many of these are quite stylised in their editing, the more angsty flashbacks with their music contrast against the simple walk. Some moments are narrated by her voice in her head, this internal dialogue seems to be taken from the source text. Though she’s surrounded by excellently shot beautiful scenery, she’s shown to not be completely enjoying the experience, it’s this facing up to her issues that’s a secondary challenge that goes hand-in-hand with the trek.
The central performances led to Oscar nominations for actresses Witherspoon and Dern, though neither won in the end. I think that’s because the film as a whole, despite having very strong performances, feels like something important is lacking.
Director Jean-Mark Vallée made another Oscar-nominated film last year too, ‘Dallas Buyers Club‘. He’s even got another film on the way for later this year, therein I feel lies an issue, he may need to slow down and take more time over his films so as to get them right. I felt this was the same issue in the Oscar race with ‘American Hustle’ last year, after the brilliant success of ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ David O. Russell would have done better by taking a little more time to perfect his follow-up.
The other issue I think played a part is that the book was adapted to screen by Nick Hornby. In an age when writers often help adapt their own works to screen, couldn’t Strayed have done it herself, or at the very least a female scriptwriter? The story is so female-centric and with such a focus on the figures of Cheryl and her mum and issues faced by women, is Hornby really the best fit for someone to adapt this? Though the way the story cuts between the past and present works very well, there’s maybe a certain authenticity lost in translation?
I can’t compare this to Tracks, or even ‘Into the Wild’ as I haven’t yet seen either of them, and I feel it’s probably unfair to at least one of those films, probably ‘Tracks’ which seems to have gone largely forgotten despite being very similarly received according to IMDb. Did this get such a lot more praise because Witherspoon is a bigger star than Wasikowska? Or maybe because it’s American?
Personally I didn’t love it. I think it maybe could’ve done with a bit more work as something is missing, and that was reflected in the Oscar nominations that highlighted the performances rather than the adaptation or any other aspect of the film. Witherspoon’s production company optioned the book before it was even published and got wheels turning on production before fully taking stock of what they had to work with, and so some of the people involved may not have been perfectly suited to the task. I can’t quite get past the fact that this source material that is so clearly a woman’s voice was adapted and directed by men.
If you enjoy films about long treks then this may be for you. Sadly, even as Cheryl uses the time to offload her own mind of all her life experiences and regrets, we as viewers may not get the same sense of relief and even find ourselves feeling burdened instead.