0227 | Wild

I felt a strong sense of déjà vu during Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s new film detailing writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Highway on a journey of self-discovery, and that was before I’d even considered those recent films that share thematic similarities, such as Tracks, Into The Wild and Eat Pray Love. I was surprised to discover that the opening credits were set in the same font as the director’s previous effort Dallas Buyers Club (they’re both in Times New Roman, but hey, at least it’s not Comic Sans), and Vallée’s decision to repeat several other familiar stylistic elements left me feeling a little wary, to say the least. There are singular choices – the evocation of tinnitus on the soundtrack, for example – that are somewhat understandably re-used, but there’s also further reliance on woozy, floaty flashbacks which often function as examinations of the main character’s earlier, pre-hike lifestyle (here be threesomes in alleyways and heroin addiction). During these I began to wonder whether Vallée is genuinely interested in the nuts and bolts of his characters’ problems, because these hallucinatory Malick-esque fast cut montages are beginning to look like a way of incorporating a certain seediness while not letting it get in the way of the audience’s uplifting experience of ‘the journey’. Granted a great deal of cinema offers a somewhat touristic experience for the viewer, particularly with regard to the grimmer corners of the world, but here it feels very much wrapped in a kind of artistically-dreamy cotton wool, and not explored in a sufficiently illuminating or questioning way. It’s an occasionally-tough movie about an occasionally-tough character, but I can’t shake the feeling that Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby could have gone a little bit further when delving into Strayed’s past, despite the limitations imposed on them by choosing to adapt her bestseller Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail.

Not that I wish to draw attention away from Strayed’s admirable walking achievement, or indeed Reese Witherspoon’s interpretation of it, which does make for an enjoyable watch. There is, after all, as much grit and pain in this film as most other serious dramas on general release right now. Wild opens with a flash-forward scene, for example, in which Witherspoon’s character loses her hiking boots, removes a bloodied toenail (greeted with a rousing chorus of ‘eeeewwwwwwwwwwws’ in my local cinema) and emits a heartfelt and exasperated ‘fuck you!’ at the many miles that lie ahead. It sets the tone for the story that follows, and although there’s plenty of landscape eye candy to gawp at, the blood, sweat and mud looks real enough to forget that comfortable trailers and excellent catering facilities were presumably close by (though I certainly don’t doubt Witherspoon’s accounts of a tough, physically-challenging shoot).

The catalyst for this fascinating journey is the sudden death of Strayed’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), the emotional reaction to which leads Cheryl down the self-destructive path that results in her divorce from sympathetic first husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski). In order to turn her life around, and become more like her happy-go-lucky mother, the inexperienced Cheryl decides to undergo the lengthy hike alone, registering her newly-chosen surname to remind herself of earlier, more consistent happiness; she has ‘strayed’ and, seemingly, the way back is long and arduous.

The flashbacks depicting the complicated (pre-hike) period in the Minnesotan’s life are introduced creatively. The audience is often party to short bursts of Strayed’s thoughts as she powers through valleys and over mountains, and music that pops into her head often acts as a trigger for old memories, as do words and lines spoken by the people she meets along the way. During many of these superbly-edited flashbacks I’m afraid there are occasions where Witherspoon never quite convinces, either as a junkie or a rebel (obvious signifiers: she starts wearing a black leather jacket and flounces out of a clichéd ‘what do you know anyway’ scene with a therapist), but it’s not through lack of effort. That said I think the other side of her performance, depicting Strayed The Hiker, is very good indeed. Initially it’s filled with humorous moments as a result of her lack of serious walking experience – her giant backpack is heavy and she can barely get it on her shoulders, let alone cover any significant distances in the extreme heat while carrying it – but as the journey progresses and becomes more dangerous Witherspoon goes through a whole range of emotions and delivers an honest, realistic performance.

Strayed’s various interactions with the people she meets along the way allows the actress to produce her best work since Walk The Line, and arguably even since the magnificent Alexander Payne satire Election. Mostly she comes into contact with men, from fellow hikers to rangers, farm workers and hunters, and while some of these are friendly and helpful, there are several who either deliberately threaten her or, at best, are inconsiderate of her situation when choosing their suggestive words. Vallée and Hornby create several tense moments where it is easy to identify with the character’s vulnerability: miles from anywhere, with no-one sure of her precise location, Strayed must judge well and it’s interesting to see how each one of these scenes play out. Though there are rattlesnakes and other natural dangers on this expedition, it is undoubtedly men who pose the greatest threat, and Witherspoon does a good job of alternating between resilience, confidence, wariness and fear. The explosion of relief Cheryl feels when she finally meets a fellow solo female hiker is entirely believable.

Both Witherspoon and Dern have been nominated for Academy Awards, in the ‘Best Actress’ and ‘Best Supporting Actress’ categories. I understand Witherspoon’s nomination despite the reservations set out above, but I’m less convinced by Dern’s, who is perfectly fine but should perhaps be considered as an outside bet with regard to the forthcoming ceremony. Still, her performance as the grinning Bobbi is infectious, and her portrayal of the mother’s resolute, positive attitude does help to explain Strayed’s decision to undergo this hike and her desire to emulate her mother’s characteristics.

It’s clear that Vallée has a talent for coaxing excellent performances out of (excellent) performers. I’m also impressed with several other aspects of this movie, from Hornby’s adaptation to Yves Bélanger’s cinematography, which captures the beauty of this long route through California, Oregon and Washington (as indeed it should). The flashbacks are entirely relevant here, and the way in which they blend with the present is impressive, but I can’t shake the nagging feeling that Vallée has revisited a little too much of Dallas Buyers Club’s winning formula with this film and I hope to see something different with his next effort, the romantic drama Demolition; at the very least it would be nice if there’s a different font for the opening credits. Still, minor quibbles aside, as internal / external journey films go this is worth your time.

The Basics:
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 115 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.2

Comments 14

    • Stu January 20, 2015

      Witherspoon is very good. As I said in the review I’m not quite convinced about her portrayal of a junkie, but this is probably due to the time it gets in the film; a couple of flashback scenes, and then all of a sudden she’s clean and undertaking this amazing long walk. But otherwise I liked her performance a lot. Laura Dern is…fine. Good, even. Maybe I’m missing something?!!

    • Stu January 21, 2015

      Ha! I know what you mean. I wouldn’t class Strayed’s personal struggle like that of Ron Woodroof’s but it’s a similar kind of film in the sense that the main character goes through this transformative process and comes out as a changed person at the end. Witherspoon is good though, so I guess that nomination seems fair enough.

  1. ruth January 20, 2015

    Hey Stu! Well, you already know how I feel about this one. I did coming in w/ neutral expectation as this is the first Jean-Marc Vallée film I saw, but it just didn’t gel w/ me. I found Reese to be irritating at times and the nudity aspect seems like an Oscar bait to me, as it really isn’t necessary. Plus I just don’t really buy her as this character, from what I read about her anyway. I remember the guy sitting next to me was bored out of his wits too which was apparent in his persistent sighing, ahah.

    • Stu January 21, 2015

      A sigher?!! Ha ha. I have to admit I did check my watch a couple of times near the end. Sorry you didn’t really like this one. I do think it has been put together well, and thought Witherspoon’s hiking scenes were really good, but I still have some reservations. I think there’s an over-reliance on flashbacks and I’m a bit non-plussed by the fact that they’re either ‘extremely happy moments’ or ‘extremely desperate moments’, with nothing much in between. Which I guess means they’re well-balanced, but it’s all a bit extreme and I’d have liked a touch more subtlety when they delved into the back story. At least they incorporated the flashbacks into the rest of the film in an interesting way.

    • Stu January 21, 2015

      Yeah, I’ve read a lot about her shedding this ‘girl-next-door’ image, which I wasn’t aware she had, to be honest. I haven’t actually seen many of her films, as I’ve never bothered with a lot that I guess she’s most famous for, like Sweet Home Alabama or Legally Blonde. I’ve seen her in Pleasantville, Mud, Walk The Line, Election and this…maybe one or two others I can’t remember…and she’s pretty good in all of those.

    • Stu January 21, 2015

      Wow…third favourite is pretty good going by your choices for 1 and 2! I have to hold my hands up and admit that I didn’t clock that the fox was CGI. I guess I just wasn’t expecting effects to be used at all in the film, and wasn’t looking for them. That’s my story anyway!

  2. Todd Benefiel January 21, 2015

    As you have no doubt have guessed, I haven’t seen this one. But there’s a reason: I read the book, and flat-out didn’t like Strayed as a person, and therefore didn’t care to see a movie about her. But you gave it a 7.2, and you made some interesting points, so perhaps a rental is on my horizon; at the very least, I could see how it compares (or if it improves) on the book.

    And as far as stories about long hikes in the US go, I really enjoyed (and highly recommend) Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’. Now THAT would be a hiking movie I would want to see!

    • Stu January 21, 2015

      That’s interesting, Todd. I haven’t read the book but it would be fascinating to compare the portrayal in the movie. She does certain things that I guess invite judgement, but for the most part it’s a sympathetic character. I read the book Into The Wild before I watched the film, and the picture I had in my head of Christopher McCandless was way different to the film version.

      I’ve read a lot of Bill Bryson but not that particular book, so I will see if my library has it next time I’m there.

  3. Mark Walker January 22, 2015

    Another interesting read, man. I’ve been dithering with this for a while but I just might go for it. Not witherspoon’s biggest fan but I enjoyed Vallee’s Buyer’s Club and his French/Canadian movie C.R.A.Z.Y is well worth a look if you haven’t seen it. Great movie.

    • Stu January 23, 2015

      Cheers Mark, much appreciated and thanks for taking the time to read. I think if you liked Dallas Buyers Club you’d probably enjoy this one. Of the three releases I wanted to check out last week this was the film I was least keen on but my wife wanted to see it, and I’m glad I did. Didn’t love it, and probably wouldn’t watch it again, but I thought it was pretty good overall. I haven’t seen (or heard of) C.R.A.Z.Y. but I’ll keep an eye out.

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