Movie reviews: Wild, American Sniper, Whiplash

Wild *****

Reese Witherspoon has built an impressive career playing ostensibly ordinary women capable of extraordinary feats of reinvention, but the contrast has rarely been more dramatic than in Wild (15A), a film adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club).

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Strayed’s story opens as she begins the arduous trek of the Pacific Crest Trail, hiking north from the Mexican to the Canadian border, but Wild offers much more than one woman’s attempt to push herself beyond her physical limits.

As the story unfolds, we discover that Cheryl is Strayed by name and prone to straying by nature: The trek is undertaken as a form of penance, or perhaps self-flagellation, as flashbacks introduce Cheryl’s ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski), her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and a host of other characters whom Cheryl has betrayed, let down, or cruelly disappointed.

These flashbacks mean the film isn’t quite a one-woman show, but the burden of the story is as firmly placed on Witherspoon’s shoulders as the ludicrously heavy (and presumably metaphorical) backpack she labours under for the duration, and she responds with a phenomenal performance that manages to convey Strayed’s self-confessed weaknesses — substance abuse and a prodigious capacity for infidelity among them — while gradually revealing Strayed’s inner strength.

The character’s tiny triumphs of the will are set against the monumental backdrop of the Wild West, which is beautifully framed by cinematographer Yves Bélanger, the contrast between the intimate and the epic adding considerably to the poignancy of Strayed’s journey towards a hard-won but entirely deserved sense of self-worth.

American Sniper (15A) concerns itself with another journey of self-discovery, in this case an account of the life of the titular hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a US Navy SEAL who specialised as a sniper and who earned himself the nom-de-guerre ‘the Legend’ during his tours during the Iraq war.

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In theory, Kyle is an American hero, particularly as the story opens with Kyle as a young boy having a lesson drummed into him by his father about how a real man is neither wolf nor sheep, but the protector of his people.

The statistics — the film tells us that Kyle is renowned as the sniper with the most recorded kills in US military history — would seem to confirm that theory, but Clint Eastwood’s film is less concerned with mythologising than it is with getting under the skin of Kyle’s All-American persona, and exploring the damage wrought by war.

Cooper puts in a compelling performance as the charming good ol’ boy Texan Kyle, a bull-riding rodeo tramp who discovers a higher calling in life when Americans abroad are killed in terrorist attacks, but who pays a heavy personal cost in adopting the role he believes he is expected to play.

Sienna Miller makes the most of her limited screen time playing Kyle’s wife Taya, a woman who struggles to understand Kyle’s desire to return again and again to Iraq, and his inability to transmute his love of country to a love of family.

The movie belongs to Cooper, the heart and tortured soul of an absorbing, edgy drama that never allows the viewer easy options when it comes to identifying with its self-questioning ‘hero’.

Whiplash (15A) stars Miles Teller as Andrew, a young man attending the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory with ambitions of emulating his hero, Buddy Rich, and becoming one of the great drummers.

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There he encounters Fletcher (JK Simmons), a no-nonsense teacher who demands that his pupils drive themselves past their limits in order to fully unlock their potential, and frequently resorts to sadistic methods to achieve it.

Damien Chazelle’s film develops as a claustrophobically intense relationship, as Fletcher alternately encourages Andrew and demolishes his confidence, while Andrew vacillates between hero-worshipping Fletcher and despising the man and his methods.

The nature of the relationship, given Fletcher’s foul-mouthed, homophobic rants, is strongly reminiscent of that between Sgt Hartman and Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket, and the constant stream of invective does become wearying after a while, particularly as it reveals little by way of depth about Fletcher’s character.

Simmons won Best Supporting Actor for his role at the Golden Globes, but Andrew, given a thoughtful reading by Teller, is the more interesting character, a fascinatingly repellent blend of ego-driven ambition and passive-aggressive emotional resistance.

Chazelle errs on the indulgent side when it comes to extended jazz drum solos, but otherwise this drama is an intriguing if flawed exploration of the relationship between creativity and self-abnegation.

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