Critic's Notebook: Meet This Season's Masochistic Movie Heroes

While the 2013 fall movie season was all about survivors, these days the big screen is invaded by another type of lead: the desperately seeking — and suffering — American striver

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

If 2013 at the movies was the year of the American survivor — in All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity and, more gravely, 12 Years a Slave — 2014 is shaping up to be the year of the American striver.

The fall has seen a flowering of high-profile, well-received (read: awards-ready) works that take a hard look at red-white-and-blue ambition across various genres: from Western to whodunit, existential adventure to backstage dramedy, student-teacher film to sports drama to satire.

Last year's protagonists were unwittingly caught up in punishing circumstances, struggling against the elements, the enemy or the system. This year, main characters in The Homesman, Wild, Foxcatcher, Birdman, Whiplash, Gone Girl and Nightcrawler (not to mention Interstellar, in which Matthew McConaughey's astronaut deserts his children to look for a habitable new planet, and Clint Eastwood's upcoming American Sniper, in which Bradley Cooper plays late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle) aren't interested in enduring; they aim to excel.

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The big screen often holds a mirror up to the national mood — so with the economy gradually gearing up again, the prevalence of this type of character right now is, in many ways, logical. But more than the success-oriented overachievers we're used to seeing on American screens — the Eve Harringtons, the Gordon Gekkos, the Tracy Flicks — these are tormented obsessives, pushing themselves, with a dose of masochism and in some cases a dash of madness, to harrowing extremes in an effort to accomplish. They're the hungriest, thirstiest, most laser-focused and ravenously goal-oriented group to hit theaters since 1976, when Rocky Balboa, Diana Christensen (Network) and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (All the President's Men) respectively punched, clawed and nosed their way to the top.

In Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman, 19th century Nebraska spinster Mary Bee Cuddy (a superb Hilary Swank) volunteers to escort three mentally ill women across the Midwest, subjecting herself to roaming outlaws, mercurial weather, a tribe of Pawnees waiting to pounce and, eventually, a deeper kind of humiliation in her dogged devotion to a good deed.

In Jean-Marc Vallee's stirring Wild, another tale of a determined heroine navigating a hostile natural world, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon in her best dramatic turn to date) hikes the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail after her mother's death and a subsequent haze of heroin and promiscuous sex. Just as vivid as her sense of achievement is the film's evocation of the danger and pain Strayed powers through, including exhaustion, dehydration and run-ins with pervy male trekkers.

Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is based on the true story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (a quietly spectacular Channing Tatum), whose bid to remain at the top — as spearheaded by manipulative benefactor John du Pont (Steve Carell) — sends him into a spiral of drugs, depression, bulimia, self-abuse and estrangement from his brother (Mark Ruffalo).

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Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, too, centers on a protege driven over the edge by a sadistic mentor. Aspiring jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller, sensational) submits to verbal lashings, mind games and the occasional slap from his conservatory teacher (J.K. Simmons), splattering blood, spraying sweat and shedding copious tears in his quest to become "one of the greats."

The season's other desperately striving artist, former screen superhero Riggan (Michael Keaton) in Alejandro G. Inarritu's bravura Birdman, attempts a comeback by directing and starring in a stage adaptation of a Raymond Carver book. Scrambling through a maze of obstacles — a bullying co-star, a vindictive theater critic, a plethora of personal problems — he keeps going until the line between catharsis and self-annihilation is blurred.

Amoral "strivers" can be found at the center of two of the fall's noirish crime thrillers: David Fincher's Gone Girl and Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler. In the former (spoiler alert!), type-A New Yorker Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), resentful of the suburban life her husband (Ben Affleck) has dragged her into, literally assumes authorship of their lives, orchestrating an elaborate revenge plot via a bogus diary. Like the protagonists in Whiplash and Birdman, she suffers for her "art," hurling herself into a gantlet of violence and sexual degradation.

In Nightcrawler, meanwhile, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) elbows his way into a lucrative gig as a crime-scene videographer, relentlessly sniffing out — and sometimes rearranging — accident sites for the money shot. He leaves a trail of destruction in his wake, but his jittery mannerisms, gaunt face and grimly ascetic lifestyle also suggest inner worlds of anguish and deprivation.

All of these characters, at various points and with varying degrees of intensity, crave normalcy: romantic and sexual companionship, a mother, a father, a child, a paycheck. But in their single-mindedness, their self-endangering pursuit of extreme goals, they alienate themselves — in Gone Girl and Wild, physically as well as psychologically. They're outsiders, though certainly not in any sexy or exalted sense. There's little glamour, glory or righteousness in their trajectories (even Strayed's soul-cleansing pilgrimage in Wild is robbed of romance when a passerby tells her she needs a shower), and loss of sanity and self are omnipresent risks.

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Of course, these lonely individuals also stand in for entire communities of American strivers throughout history: pioneers forging a new life on the frontier; journalists, artists and athletes trying to become, or stay, relevant in their cutthroat fields; self-helpers and new-agers seeking spiritual solace; empowered women bristling at the pressure to settle down or settle for less.

Given the struggle inherent in those experiences, it's fitting that the films look and feel steeped in anxiety, even dread (especially in contrast to the jaunty hedonism of last year's striver stories, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Hustle) — from the chilly gray-blue palette of Foxcatcher and Gone Girl to the austere compositions of The Homesman, the manic cuts in Whiplash to Birdman's restless percussion score, the piercing flashbacks of Wild to the menace-drenched cityscapes of Nightcrawler.

After several years of war and recession, we may be ready to look toward the horizon again, to seize the promise of prosperity, to take risks, to aim high and suffer for our objectives. But not so fast, these films seem to whisper: The American dream always has been, and still is, very much alive, its green light beckoning; the road to it, on the other hand, is littered with damaged people and dark stories just like these.

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