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.
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman
Running Time: 115 minutes