The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’s Messy Beauty

Sometimes movies, guilty pleasures or otherwise, stick with you because they enter your life at just the right time — whether life is feeling too banal and you’re in need of inspiration or you’re heartbroken and in need of comfort or whatever the case may be, a certain movie can be your fix.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a case in point.

waltermittystillerwiig              20th Century Fox

I was preparing to travel abroad for the first time, to Istanbul. I was admittedly a bit nervous. About a week before I was set to leave, I saw Walter Mitty in theaters. I needed an escape, and going to the movies always helps. And Walter Mitty was on the menu because, at least from the first trailer, I felt it was fitting — a photo of Sean Penn creepily coming to life and beckoning me with his fingers to face my fears and travel? All set to the tunes of some wonderfully twee alt-folk-whatever-you-want-to-call-it music with a lot of “la la la’s” and “oh oh oh’s” in the chorus?

Sign me up! (All jokes aside, it’s a pretty fascinating trailer, if you think about it — relatively artsy, there’s no dialogue at all, no hints of what it’s about, and yet it’s selling a big studio movie.)

Anyway, the movie helped me in my time of need (if you want to call it that). But I knew my affection for it wasn’t simply because of the circumstances of my life at that moment — there were many things I legitimately admired about it, even though I knew it had some flaws and the shifts in tone were confusing.

So the question is: watching it now, would it hold up? Granted, it’s only been three and a half years since that first viewing, and I’ve already rewatched it in that time. But I’m focused on this most recent viewing. Would it affect me the same way?

I have to admit, it didn’t inspire me to go hop on the first available plane to some random country or anything. However, I still found myself enjoying it — while still cringing at some of the more slapstick-y daydreams.

The movie is gorgeous. Careful consideration is behind nearly every shot. So I began to really pay attention to this aspect.

The movie is about appreciating the beauty life has to offer. In that respect, Mitty follows its own advice and does more than succeed.

mitty220th Century Fox

It owes quite a lot to past visual beauties of cinema. Not just widescreen, Cinema-Scope classics of yesteryear, but, probably intentionally, it takes from something more modern: co-star Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Towards the end of the second act, when Walter is climbing the Himalayas to find Sean Penn’s character (named Sean), we see his handwritten journal entries scrawled across the screen…

mittyhimalayas20th Century Fox

Just like Into the Wild. (And these two movies are certainly not the only films that have done this, but still… the fact that Sean Penn is in the movie seems more than coincidental.)

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The device definitely doesn’t work as well in Mitty because of the tone problems. The handwritten words that flash across the screen don’t fit the rest of the film we’ve watched up to this point. Suddenly we’re watching a movie that’s trying to be some serious, wild exploration adventure movie. In Into the Wild it works because the movie is sober from start to finish and the austere journal entries fit the world.

But, journal entries across the screen aside, there’s no denying that sequence — and all of the nature shots — are a sight to behold. You forget about tone issues for a beat when you’re getting lost in the beauty of DP Stuart Dryburgh’s cinematography.

Just look how gorgeous:

WALTERMITTY_LOOK_08mitty320th Century Fox

And it’s not just landscape shots —

wiigmitty20th Century Fox

Look at those damn clementines! Holy shit! Amazing!

These shots make up for some of the slapstick that I can’t really stand. To be honest, most of the daydreams and shifts in tone I can live with — save for two instances. There’s one flashback that’s like a riff on Benjamin Button, which could have been humorous in a different movie, but Benjamin Button was, like, a five-year-old movie by the time Mitty came out. And not only that, it’s not-in-a-good-way weird — I watch and can’t help but ask, “What the fuck is this shit?”

The second scene that’s annoyed me from the first watch is the move into Act Three. It begins with an X-Ray shot of Walter going through airport security and getting into a tiff with the agents. A Three Stooges-like altercation occurs and it’s clearly supposed to be funny but it immediately follows this beautiful sunset sequence of a soccer game with Himalayan locals… It’s almost an insult to that previous scene.

But real quick, back to the good stuff — the cinematography. I noticed it’s not just pretty visuals. There’s a point being made with these shots — something one might not expect with a movie like this. And yet, here we are:

The film begins with incredibly wide shots, shots that seem to eat Walter alive. The world is so vast and he’s so small. He’s a speck who feels like he has no voice.

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And this technique continues throughout the rest of the first and second acts, as you see with the landscape shots. But after Walter learns that the negative he’s been spending nearly the entire movie searching for was accidentally thrown away, the visual language shifts somewhat. As we dive into the third act, the use of exaggeratedly-wide wide shots diminish — Walter has been humbled, and he’s a bit more worldly. He’s finally done some noteworthy and mentionable shit (which was something he couldn’t say at the start). Suddenly, for Walter, the world doesn’t seem as large as it once did.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 12.21.24 PM

The wide shots being used no longer swallow Walter whole. He fits; he’s found his place. He’s no longer the speck with no voice.

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And that’s where the beauty lies in the film. Get out, face those fears. Appreciate earth’s beauty. It’ll help you find yourself and your place in this world.

If little ol’ Walter Mitty could do it, so can you.


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