You have never seen Reese Witherspoon like this. It is always at this time of year that you hear that sentence. With a different person it is uttered about, but Oscar season always seems to bring about a performance from an actor that is something you’ve never seen them attempt and you might not have thought them capable of previous. Without seeming too trite in this case it is very true. Reese Witherspoon at the beginning of her career played mostly the sweet girl that men fell for and then got taken more seriously by the powers that be after her Oscar-winning performance as June Carter in Walk the Line. Now she has expanded what people, movie fans and critics, think of her even further with her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed.
To say that Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon – Legally Blonde, Monsters vs. Aliens) is a broken woman at the beginning of her walk of the Pacific Crest Trail is an understatement to say the least. She has become addicted to drugs, has sex indiscriminately, was crushed by the death of her mother, and was largely responsible for the end of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski – from television’s The Newsroom). Basically a mess. Cheryl decides that the way to pull herself out of her self destructive ways is to go on a solo 1,100 mile hike through the desert.
You might assume that a woman who decided to do such a long solo walk would be an experienced hiker, but nothing could be further from the truth. Cheryl was not an experienced hiker (as was illustrated by her monstrosity of a backpack which she could barely lift) and just used a book about the Pacific Crest Trail as her guide. She really went into this blind in order to regain her sight about life…the life she wanted to live. It is a film not about seeking redemption rather about being alright about the things you cannot control in life.
Montreal native Jean-Marc Vallée chose to tell this story as a series of flashbacks. It is through Cheryl’s memories as she is on the walk that we learn her story. Each subsequent flashback gives us a more complete picture of this woman and how she became who she is. Vallée really makes Witherspoon or Cheryl the centerpiece of the film. You would think that there would be plenty of breathtaking vistas or landscapes in the film, but those are few and far between. Cheryl is really the focal point of the film in every respect. Witherspoon, with very little wardrobe and little to no make-up, is up front and centre. The lead actress (and executive producer of the film) is up to the task in that she has been given very little dialogue to say. Much of what she been tasked with conveying is through body language and her face. Tough task and on top of that she has to lug that backpack around, climb up rocks and generally be challenged physically throughout.
Between Vallée’s straightforward direction and Witherspoon’s fearlessness in portraying this flawed character it becomes a story about several things in which at least several of them will be easily relatable to the life led by the viewer. It is a story about accepting the uncontrollable as well as the love between a mother (beautifully portrayed by Laura Dern – The Fault in Our Stars, Jurassic Park III) and daughter and loss and healing. Universal themes all. Instead of screaming from the tops of the mountains she has to climb or beating us over the head with the film’s themes Vallée manages to keep them muted and as a result that much more impactful. The multitude of quiet moments has the same emotional effect that the pulling off of a toenail (as Cheryl does in the opening scene of the film) would in this well constructed film.