WRITTEN REVIEW – Wild (2015)
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Nick Hornby
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski & Michiel Huisman
Music: Daniel Coupal
Release Date: January 16th 2015
Taking a glance at the premise of ‘Wild‘, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s in the same vein as saccharine, self-important tripe like ‘Eat Pray Love‘, ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘ or ‘Hector and the Search for Happiness‘, where a lone person travels a great distance in order to “find themselves”. However, it’s in the details and the set-up that sets ‘Wild‘ apart. Based on the best-selling memoir of Cheryl Strayed “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail“, ‘Wild‘ follows Cheryl as she treks 1,100 miles in order to rebuild herself after the death of her mother, a divorce and a drug addiction.
‘Wild‘ is brought to us from Pacific Standard, a production company founded by Reese Witherspoon (who also stars) in order to create more dynamic and interesting roles in media for women. Pacific Standard found massive success last year by developing an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel ‘Gone Girl‘ which wound up being one of the biggest sleeper hits of 2014. Can ‘Wild‘ recapture that same spirit?
“Honestly, I think I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.”
‘Wild‘ opens in medias res with Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) settling down on top of a rocky mountain, wincing as she takes off her hiking boots revealing bloodied and beaten toes. Then then proceeds to rip off infected toenails before accidentally dropping one of her boots down the mountain.
This woman is not having a good day and this opening scene is an effective cold-open for ‘Wild‘ by portraying the difficult task that Cheryl Strayed has undertaken and just how unprepared she was for the journey.
But she feels compelled to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (the PCT; a 2,650 mile stretch from California, through Oregan and ending in Washington near the Canadian border) because she wants to prove to herself that she’s the woman that her mother thought she could be. After her life spirals downwards after the death of the aforementioned mother (Dern), a string of affairs with anyone willing, leading to a heroin addiction which resulted in a painful divorce, she decides undergo a metaphorical and literal detox on the PCT.
So those wanting a light-hearted, self-discovery story where someone who has everything they could ever want but STILL aren’t content would be better off watching ‘Eat Pray Love‘ or some other tosh.
What sets ‘Wild‘ above its contemporary hoping to spread similar messages about life is that it actually has the audacity to drag the protagonist down to a low point in order to make her learn and rise above the depravity. Despite the idyllic locations and the gorgeously photographed landscapes of the PCT (‘Wild‘ could make a compelling advert for the PCT, as indeed the film has generated a surge of interest in the trail since its release) this is an arduous journey made harder by Cheryl’s comically oversized backpack. On her first day of the trail, Cheryl can barely make it out of the hotel room because the size of her backpack prevents her from even standing up, but later on she removes a few unnecessary items from the pack to lighten the load as her journey goes on.
It’s an on-the-nose metaphor as she starts to let go of what’s happened in her life through her backpack becoming lighter on the journey, but ‘Wild‘ also uses a few smarter and more nuanced visual metaphors. These include a scene where she’s emptying her backpack deciding what to throw away and what to keep before realising that despite going on a 1,000+ mile, solitary hike she brought over a dozen condoms. She throws away all but one, indicating that while she’s lightening the load, she is still staying true to who she is. Also, on her first few days she’s unable to work the portable stove she’s brought with her because she’s brought non-compatible fuel and it’s not until she gets help from a local farmer on the trail that she’s able to find a suitable replacement, indicating that while she has an idea of how to hike, she needs to rely on those more equipped in order to continue her journey.
It’s a well-told story which is bolstered by a brilliant lead performance by Reese Witherspoon. The type of raw, exposed performance that practically guarantees you a “Best Actress” nomination at the Academy Awards (how about that?). ‘Wild‘ is far and away the most physically taxing performance of Witherspoon’s career as she climbs mountains, walks desert paths and stumbles through the snow and fast-moving rivers. The dedication to the movie is commendable and Witherspoon definitely deserves all the accolades being heaped on her at the moment for that alone.
NITPICK TIME!: While Witherspoon is great in the movie and in the role, she is slightly miscast in that she’s too old to be Cheryl Strayed (Cheryl hiked the PCT when she was 27, whereas Reese was 37 when she filmed the movie) which makes her downward spiral slightly less credible as her mistakes that lead to her self-discovery journey are those of a damaged, immature young woman, not someone with Witherspoon’s life experience that her age would imply. That being said, there are many flashback sequences where Reese Witherspoon is aged-down and she looks very convincing in those scenes. It makes me wonder why they couldn’t do something similar when she’s travelling the PCT. But then I remember that the make-up kits would probably melt in the heat or become noticeable when mixed with sweat and then I shut up because I’m nit-picking.
Anyway, while this is indisputably Witherspoon’s show, there’s a large supporting cast of people she meets throughout her journey that acquit themselves admirably, but the most noteworthy character’s impact is felt in the flashback sequences; Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi played by a heart-warming and sincere Laura Dern. Interestingly, the trailers and promotional material for ‘Wild‘ seem to emphasise Cheryl’s divorce with her husband Paul (Sadoski) as being the main reason for her hike, which seems very counter intuitive to why Pacific Standard production company was founded (because why else would someone hike the PCT if it wasn’t for some MAN, right?).
But the crux of the movie is Cheryl’s relationship with her mother and the months leading up to her death which was the catalyst for her self-destructive behaviour. The movie is also clever in that it’s told in a non-linear fashion through flashbacks which gives the audience a feeling of discovering more about the character as she learns more about herself. It’s an effective storytelling tool as Cheryl Strayed goes on a similar journey as the audience…although the audience won’t painfully be ripping off infected toe-nails.
But incidentally, if the audience want an experience akin to that, most movie theatres should also be showing ‘American Sniper‘ and ‘Tak3n‘. Yeah, I went there.
As mentioned before, the landscapes are gorgeously filmed with ‘Wild‘ being an effective walking-tour of the PCT showcasing its variety of locales. One minute Cheryl is struggling to traverse a rocky canyon, wading her way through a running river and the next she’s in a snowcapped slope asking skiers for directions. While ‘Wild‘ probably won’t convince everyone who watches it to go on a monumental hiking trip it does capture some of America’s most beautiful vistas. Combined with the ambient sound design, ‘Wild‘ is one of those rare movies where it’s a very intimate experience that also works as a big-screen experience.
If there’s one letdown with ‘Wild‘ it’s that there’s nothing in the way of repercussions or after effects. ‘Wild‘ ends with Cheryl at the end of her hike and doesn’t show any of the aftermath that her journey has had. Her ex-husband had previously sent packages with supplies and letters at certain milestones of the PCT (pit-stops mixed with post-offices) but we never see the final package. There isn’t even an on-screen text description of how she viewed the world after her hike and there’s zero interaction or reference to her brother outside of the flashbacks. Yes, you can read the book if you want to know how Cheryl Strayed viewed the world afterwards, but to end so abruptly instils a feeling of “Well…now that I’ve done that” as opposed to some genuine accomplishment with long-lasting implications. That’s not to belittle what Cheryl Strayed did or to undermine her personal accomplishments and it’s probably a deliberate approach akin to the cliché of “what matters is the journey, not the destination”, but to not even acknowledge the personal growth of the character outside of the wilderness feels like a missed opportunity. The movie feels well paced at 115 minutes so an additional 5 minutes wouldn’t have felt out-of-place or gratuitous.
But ‘Wild‘ is an effective, emotional and well-made trip of self-discovery that simultaneously works as a compelling advertisement for the PCT and an intimate and smartly told character study. Its lack of aftermath is disappointing, but the enterprise is held together by a well edited, non-linear structure, a career-best lead performance from Reese Witherspoon and an uncompromising portrayal of its lead-character. Cheryl starts this story from the bottom of the barrel but she EARNS the sympathy from the audience instead of demanding it like many of ‘Wild‘s contemporaries. Which makes her trip into the wilderness all the more satisfying.
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Posted: 24th Jan 15