Before you label Wild a ‘Reese Witherspoon movie,’ you have to see it from start to end. You’d be surprise that it’s not your typical movie from her. It’s more.
The story begins in 1995 with Cheryl Strayed, a young twentysomething, about to start a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. This comes right after her divorce from Paul, her husband of seven years. One of the many troubles in Cheryl’s life. Cheryl looks to hiking the trail as a chance to reshape her life and gain inner strength. But at first, you will think Cheryl doesn’t have what it takes to do this long hike. It’s an 1,100 mile journey and on top of it, Cheryl is struggling to simply put on her 40-pound backpack, never mind walk with it. And on uneven terrain that includes mountains? Can she do it? Even her best friend Aimee feels she can’t do it.
The hike starts with great difficulty. Walking with the heavy backpack, she has difficulties on the first day such as not even hiking ten miles, being without cooking fuel and being unable to set up a tent properly. The days get stronger over time but it’s still very gradual as the second day she’s made aware of the type of wild animals she would have to deal with.
Over time she would have to find help. On the third day, she asks a farmer for help. He offers to take her to her house but she’s nervous about it, especially since she sees a gun in his car. She later learns he’s a married man and the couple offer her to stay overnight. Over time she meets other people that offer her help from a father and his teenage son to full families to people at various camping goods stores and retailers to hippies in a local California town who pay tribute to Jerry Garcia upon his recent death at the time to three college guys out having a fun hike together to even hikers that also plan to do the trail but eventually fail. Not all were helpful. One was a journalist for a magazine who just took pictures of her and interviewed her. Another was a group of snowboarders on a mountain top who just leave her. Another was a pair of threatening-looking men she met at a well only to be encountered by the bowhunter later looking like he would want to do something harmful to her. Fortunately it doesn’t happen as his colleague tells him to return.
However it’s the alone times of the hike that are the most crucial. In between the times she signs a name on the hike log that includes using a quote or line of poetry from a famous poet, Cheryl is all alone and has the moments of her past come back to her. Moments like a childhood with an abusive father her mother leaves taking her younger brother and her at age 6, going through high school while her mother was returning to complete her graduation, marrying Paul a successful restaurant owner while young, learning her mother has cancer and her dying sooner than expected, having her mother’s cherished horse put down, leaving Paul and hitting the inner city of Portland where she adopts a drug habit and even has an abortion. Those are the memories Cheryl is trying to wrestle with in her hike. Her cheap therapy hasn’t helped but maybe this hike will.
The thing with this film is that it’s not just to show the trip Cheryl took but also the flashbacks to the moments of her life that both trouble her and define her. We don’t just see the bad memories she’s dealing with but we feel them too. We may first just see Cheryl right after she finished her divorce at the beginning but as the trip progresses, we start feeling her situation. We learn of the bond she had with her mother and why her death hurt her terribly. We learn of how her marriage to Paul fell apart. We learn of her drug abuse. We learn of her abusive father she hasn’t seen since she was a small girl. We learn of the cheap therapy she tried at first but didn’t work. We learn of her no-so-close relationship with her brother. Over time, we see why Cheryl wants to use this trip to heal herself and it comes to appear as the right thing for her to do.
The film gives a good sense of inner strength Cheryl acquires over time with the hike. At first Cheryl appears to be a completely amateur camper who can’t get her backpack on right, can’t put up a tent well and can’t cook a proper dinner outdoors. You think she doesn’t have a chance in completing it. You’d think even more so when she comes across threatening creatures like rattlesnakes and cougars along the way. You’d also think that way in seeing she can’t even cover ten miles a day during the beginning of her trip. Sometimes you think she might become a victim of crime as there would be some threatening people she’d encounter, especially that bowhunter. Nevertheless she gets stronger with each and every mile.
However the film also succeeds in conveying the popular saying ‘the journey is the destination.’ It shows Cheryl being enriched by her experience while mentally fighting her troubles of the past. That’s not just acquired from her hiking but also from the people she meets. It’s people like the farmer who first appears threatening but becomes helpful along with his wife, like the hippies she encounters upon the death of Jerry Garcia, like the men at the store who help her reduce her packing, like the various hikers she comes across, and people like the grandson who sings ‘Red River Valley.’ There are many people that enrich her experience. Even those that seem insignificant like that journalist on the road or the three young college boys hiking together and goofing off appear to give some extra richness to her experience. Even the quotes from various authors and poets Cheryl puts in the logbooks add to the richness of the journey.
Another key aspect the film focuses on is people’s attitudes, especially in dealing with the hardships of life. We see Cheryl as she went through a self-destructive path after her mother died and needed a way out. She took the Trail in hopes that it would help her recover. We also see her mother who had also been through hardships of her own but still holds her head high. That scene where she says she doesn’t regret marrying Ronald because she had her and Leif. You think people that are constantly positive are naive and foolish but she shows strength in positive thinking. Even seeing her on her deathbed laughing how she finally gets a ‘room with a view,’ it takes a special kind of person to hold their head high during difficult times. I think it was because of her mother’s positive attitude that Cheryl knew she couldn’t be a victim anymore and needed to heal herself. That’s why she took that hike. Interesting how there are some people like Bobbi who just have that ability to stay strong in hard times and there are people like Cheryl who need to acquire that inner strength.
Without a doubt, the film belonged to Reese Witherspoon. This is not the typical Reese Witherspoon movie. This is Reese playing someone completely different from roles she’s played before in the past and it’s a role with immense depth. Even playing Cheryl at various ages in the film. She comes out shining. Even though this appears to be a one-person film, it’s Laura Dern who does an excellent job as Bobbi and even steals the film at times. She makes being positive in difficult times look smart and strong instead of naive and foolish. Thomas Sadoski did good playing Paul but his role could have been developed more as could have the role of her brother Leif played by Keene McRae and the role of best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. The various supporting performances were also excellent and added to the film. Even the briefest of performances.
Jean-Marc Vallee does it again. He really made a name for himself last year with the Dallas Buyers Club and he adds to his reputation here. He succeeds in making it the personal story of Cheryl’s it’s supposed to be while adding to the environment of the story. Nick Hornby did a very good job of writing out the story from Cheryl’s memoirs keeping in the key parts of her hike and of her life. The film made a wise choice in keeping the story mostly score-free and let the sounds of the wild and even the chill of silence add to the story. That scene of the bowhunter appearing to either want to rape or murder Cheryl wouldn’t have worked as well with a score. The inclusion of the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘El Condor Pasa‘ is an excellent addition. It’s almost like it becomes Cheryl’s own personal anthem. Also noteworthy are the contributions by Strayed herself where she’s the associate producer and even plays a woman in a truck in the film. Her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom even plays Cheryl as a child.
Wild is a bit of a melodrama but it’s not the least bit boring. It’s a very deep, very enriching story of one woman using a hike to fight her inner troubles. We not only witness her gain inner strength from it, we experience it.
I wasn’t planning on posting this. Actually I was planning my next blog to be another Best Picture review. Instead I post this because of how shocking it is. And of how much I admired him and his works.
Philip was born in Fairport, New York (just outside of Rochester) on July 23, 1967, one of four children to family court judge Marilyn O’Connor and Xerox executive Gordon Hoffman. His parents divorced when he was 9. Hoffman’s past-time in high school was wrestling but switched to acting after a neck injury caused him to quit. Talent was noticed at a young age as he was selected at 17 to attend the 1984 theatre school at the New York State Summer School Of The Arts in Saratoga Springs. He graduated from Fairport High School in 1985 and attended the Circle in the Square Theatre’s summer program. He would go on to attend New York University’s Tisch School Of The Arts and graduated with a BFA in 1989. Soon after he had a bout of alcohol and drug addiction which we would attend rehab for shortly after and eventually overcome.
He made his acting debut on television acting in a 1991 Law & Order episode. His first film role came in 1992’s Scent Of A Woman. Minor roles in film continued for Hoffman over the next few years. In 1995 he joined the LAbyrinth Theatre Company where he staged and performed in numerous productions. However his breakthrough came in 1997 when he had a scene-stealing supporting role as Scotty J. in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights. Hoffman would act in three more Paul Thomas Anderson movies: 1999’s Magnolia, 2002’s Punch Drunk Love and 2012’s The Master. Over the next few years, Hoffman’s reputation as an actor would grow with more excellent performances in independent films like The Big Lebowski, Happiness, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and State And Main. He also showed he could act well in popcorn films like Patch Adams and Almost Famous. In theatre, he would earn a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in 2000 for playing Lee in the readaptation of Sam Shepard’s True West.
Further excellent performances continued for him in films like Love Liza (which was written by his brother Gordy), Owning Mahowny and the TV miniseries Empire Falls. He also continued to do come off well in box office fare like Cold Mountain and Along Came Polly. Theatre accolades would continue with his second Tony nomination coming in 2003 for his supporting performance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. However big critical acclaim in film. kept on alluding him until 2005’s Capote. There he was to play Truman Capote in a biopic directed by former Tisch classmate Bennett Miller. He was even said to act in character even after scene shooting ended. It was there where Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. And Miller received his first and so far only Best Director nomination.
Things became better for Hoffman commercially as he would play villain Owen Davian in Mission Impossible 3 months later. In 2007 he received Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor in the independent comedy The Savages and Best Supporting Actor for playing Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War opposite Tom Hanks. It’s his role in Charlie Wilson’s War that would earn him his second Oscar nomination. Hoffman would return as an Oscar nominee the following year in the Supporting Actor category again as Fr. Brendan Flynn in the film adaptation of the Broadway play Doubt opposite Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.
Hoffman would continue acting in film, both independent and commercial. He would also continue acting and directing in theatre. He wouldn’t get too much notice or acclaim over the next two years but his work continued to be consistent. He would again steal scenes in 2011’s The Ides Of March and Moneyball as frumpy Coach Art Howe. 2012 was another big year for Hoffman as it would be acclaim in both his theatre and his film acting. On stage he blew Broadway crowds away during the summer with his performance of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman and played controlling yet charismatic religious leader Lancaster Dodd in The Master. 2013 would give him more exposure to the commercial movie crowd as he entered into the Hunger Games trilogy as Plutarch Heavensbee in 2013’s Catching Fire. He had already finished playing Plutarch in the first Mockingjay film and had just finished most of the shooting for the second as of February 1st.
Outside of acting, Hoffman shied away from the spotlight. In 1999, he statrted dating Mimi O’Donnell. It would prove to be a permanent union and both he and Mimi had three children. He was open about his past alcohol and drug abuse from which experienced upon graduating from Tisch. He said of his experiences: “I abused anything I could get my hands on and I liked it all.” He recovered successfully and would describe himself as a teetotaler from his past experience but a relapse would eventually happen. In May 2013, he openly confessed to abusing heroine and prescription pills and checked himself into a rehab clinic for ten days.
On Sunday February 2nd, Hoffman was found dead by playwright and friend David Bar Katz in the bathroom of his Manhattan office apartment. A hypodermic needle was found in his arm according to the police. Heroin was also found in the apartment. He was 46 years old.
I hate to bring up the topic of tabloid gossip at a time like this but that topic is unavoidable. Especially when a famous actor dies in such a way. There’s no question in the weeks and months after, there will be a lot of questions about this. There will be some journalists who will want to interview Mimi O’Donnell or close family relatives about this situation. Cast mates of past movies will also be questioned. Even the rehab clinic Hoffman has been attending since his relapse will face its fair share of journalists. I myself am shocked to hear of that. Years ago I read his IMDB profile and it said he does not drink alcohol because of his past experience with alcoholism. I was happy feeling that there was an actor that can be free from scandal. I never knew about his relapse. This is especially surprising since you normally hear about such deaths of actors hugely in the public eye. And Philip was the opposite. He was mostly private, rarely attended A-list events, had friends who were mostly in theatre rather than in the Hollywood business, had an unmarried relationship to the same woman since 1999 and raised his kids quietly. I guess we’ll only know the whole story in the future.
One thing to say is I don’t want to focus on the surroundings of his death. Even though I feel like asking ‘What happened,’ I’ll keep my mouth shut for now. One thing I will say is that I will always admire Philip Seymour Hoffman for the actor that he was. I’m able to separate myself from actors as actors and actors as people. Whenever I admire actors, I admire them for their acting jobs. They’d have to give me a good reason for me to admire their lifestyle. Anyways Philip Seymour Hoffman was an excellent actor. He really knew how to embrace the character both physically and emotionally. He was more than a top character actor, he knew how to make the roles multidimensional. I’ve seen many of his performances and he never let me down once. He always delivered.
I’ve always considered Philip to be one of the best actors of my generation. I also must confess I was secretly predicting and hoping that Philip would be the next Tom Hanks. It just showed how naive I was to the present acting system. There was a time when an actor had the ability to be both a master of their craft and a top box office draw. That was common form the 30’s to the 60’s. Then there was a time in the 70’s when the big money-winning movies and the serious films had a gap between them that really widened in that decade. With that came a bigger gap between the on-screen craftmasters and the money-winning A-listers. That was especially noticeable in the 80’s. The reason why Tom Hanks was so beloved was that he was one of those rarities who was able to deliver in their craft and bring in top box office dollar.
I felt that Philip had the potential to do just that. I just wasn’t aware at the time of the types of actors that were able to win over the box office dollars. Turns out it’s back to being a looks thing again. Especially in the wake of the Twilight movies. I should know that 5′ 10″ and slightly pudgy won’t make you an A-lister. In fact one New York journalist summed up the physical appearance of Hoffman as: “a stocky, often sleepy-looking man with blond, generally uncombed hair who favored the rumpled clothes more associated with an out-of-work actor than a star.” That was just his nature. He was more interested in being an actor than a star.
Like I said Philip never let me down. Whether it was a role in a popular popcorn movie or if it was in a serious independent production, Philip always delivered. Even his co-stars would vouch for that. I believe that’s the legacy Philip will leave behind. Character acting performances that he didn’t just play but embodied and he knew how to grab your attention. I will always admire him for that.
Rest In Peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman. And thank you for captivating us over the years.
WIKIPEDIA: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Seymour_Hoffman>
The Master looks like it’s meant as a depiction of a religious leader of a controversial religion. The question is how true is it? And does it succeed in getting the message across?
Freddie Quell is a Navy veteran who returns home from World War II with an uncertain future and unsettled behavior. How unsettled? He gets violent at the drop of a hat. He’s an easy drunk whose favorite drink is a personal mix of alcohol and other various chemicals. He’s sexually obsessed with sex to the point he masturbates frequently and loves making women out of beach sand just to seduce. Life back in the US is not easy for him to get back to normal. He loses his job as a photographer after starting a fight with one of his customers. He loses a farming job after one of the elderly farmhands gets poisoned from his drinking concoction. Is there any chance for him?
One day he stows away on a ship but it’s not just any ship. This ship is a yacht owned by Lancaster Dodd, a religious leader of a philosophical movement called ‘The Cause’. Dodd allows Freddie to watch the marriage of Dodd’s daughter as long as he makes his mysterious brew for him. Dodd sees a way of getting Freddie into the movement. Dodd asks some deep questions about Freddie and his past, called Processing, which he hopes to heal Freddie’s traumas. Freddie tells Dodd some dark truths about his past and Dodd doesn’t flinch like most. Freddie is blown away by Dodd while Dodd takes a liking to Freddie. Dodd agrees to make Freddie part of The Cause and Freddie becomes an active member in it recruiting other people.
The one problem is that members of The Cause are hoping to improve Freddie’s irrational behavior and he shows no signs of improvement. One example is Freddie assaults a man at a hotel some time after he questions Dodd for his beliefs. Dodd’s wife Peggy tries to make a deal with him that he quits drinking if he wishes to stay. He agrees but shows no intention to quit. Freddie even criticizes Dodd’s son for rejecting his father’s teaching but the son believes he makes it up as he goes along. Dodd is later arrested for practicing medicine without a license and Freddie is arrested for assaulting the officers pursuing Dodd. The time in the jail cell is hard as Dodd and Freddie are in opposite cells. Dodd tries to calm a violent Freddie down but Freddie questions him in a tirade and accuses him of being a fake. Both trade insults in the end. Freddie and Dodd reconcile upon release but those in ‘The Cause’ become more suspicious of him.
Freddie continues with The Cause and its exercises but becomes more frustrated when the results don’t work. Freddie helps Dodd in spreading the word on the street and on the radio. However things turn nasty when Freddie assaults a book publisher who criticizes Dodd’s book. Dodd himself event becomes temperamental around critics of his books.
Already there are strong signals that Freddie is ready to leave The Cause. It came when Dodd gave his colleagues an exercise of motorcycling in the desert to an object in the distance and Freddie cycles away. Freddie returns home to rekindle his relationship with Doris, his girlfriend he wrote to during the war, but learns she married and started a family in the seven years since she lost contact with Freddie. However Freddie has a dream of Dodd telephoning him in a movie theatre and telling him he’s in England and Freddie must join as soon as possible. Freddie goes to England and finds Dodd with wife Peggy. Peggy believes Freddie should leave The Cause since he’s made no improvement. Dodd agrees but still taking a liking to Freddie and gives him an ultimatum: stay and devote his whole life to The Cause or leave and never come back. Freddie leaves and is left to follow his own path.
The film appears to be a depiction of the Church of Scientology and its leader L. Ron Hubbard. There are a lot of similarities to it: Hoffman’s resemblance to Hubbard and the film set in 1950, the same year Hubbard set up his church. Anderson will admit that Lancaster Dodd is a lot like L. Ron Hubbard but not intended to be a direct depiction of him: “This is not the L. Ron Hubbard story.” Some people in the Church Of Scientology had spoken concerns of the film. Anderson even screened the film for Tom Cruise who had acted in Anderson’s Magnolia and had concerns of his own. Nevertheless there has been no talk of lawsuits from the Church of Scientology. Whatever the situation, I can’t say because I never attended the Church of Scientology in my lifetime.
Once again Paul Thomas Anderson writes and directs an excellent effort. Ever since he burst onto the filmmaking scene with Boogie Nights, he was continued to impress with Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood and now again with The Master. One thing Paul Thomas Anderson succeeds in doing again is captivating a svengali-like character. We’ve seen it before in There Will Be Blood where he was able to capture Daniel Plainview and his desire to use and manipulate his way to the top and ultimately face a downfall. We see it here again in Lancaster Dodd who succeeds in being the one in control and convince his followers to his sayings, even if they know they’re a lie. Philip Seymour Hoffman does his own part in making this svengali-like character come to life. He fills the character up with the charming controllingness very common in many svengali-like figures or leader-like characters. That’s a common trait of Philip Seymour Hoffman to embody the character completely. He’s done it in the past to exceptional results and he does it again here.
Just as good at capturing a character is Joaquin Phoenix. He did a good job of playing a very lost character: a navy officer returning from World War II disturbed and uncoothed in behavior. This movie is just as much about the controlled as it is about the controller and Joaquin did a great job in holding his own well despite the easy upstagings of Hoffman. Also good at stealing the scene was Amy Adams. She did an excellent job of playing the wife who was both a controller and the controlled. Another standout effort of the film was the original music of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. He has done music before for There Will Be Blood and he does another excellent work.
As for the movie, it wasn’t that big of a hit at the box office. That’s one of the difficulties of films around the Oscar period from now leading up to the beginning of the new year. Most of the top contending movies for the Academy Awards consist of movies with standout efforts in acting, directing and scriptwriting. However they face the difficulties of trying to win a crowd at the box office which is loaded with mostly commercial fare and the stuff to attract big crowds. It’s trying to compete for that attention amongst the noise. The Master hasn’t been so fortunate. It has only made $15 million at the box office. That’s part of the trials of putting serious fare out.
The Master is a very intriguing movie resembling a popular religious movement and its founder. It could shed a light on the movement and even capture what the founder may be like but it does more, and that’s its best quality.