After the laurels his latest effort, Dallas Buyers Club, gathered, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée was in a perfect position to aim higher. And, ambitious as he is, this is what he did, choosing a potentially appealing but equally risky one-protagonist-against-the-world-and-their-own-weaknesses plot, Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir.
Strayed started her lone journey in the mid-1990s. At 26, she was freshly divorced, sobering up from alcohol, drugs and sex addictions while recovering from a family trauma, which is a decent load of problems to break anyone’s morale. She felt she needed a cleanse. For someone with literally no experience in hiking, her idea to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to the mountains of Oregon alone seemed like a death sentence or at least a ticket to an insane asylum. Yet the newly re-named Cheryl (“Strayed” is a last name she gave herself after the divorce) succeeded and wrote a book about it.
Nick Hornby’s script doesn’t follow the traditional linear trail – while watching Cheryl’s struggles on the road, the viewer is often thrown back into the past, unexpectedly landing in moments that led her to undertake this daring task. Thus, we’re allowed to discover bits and pieces that will ultimately form a full picture. Why is her husband still sending her letters? Why does she fear men? What happened to her mother? Why is it that unconditional love can spawn toxic offspring? Somehow, it feels like we get to know Cheryl too late. For a good chunk of time, her motivation and despair remain unclear. We obediently follow the character, but her story leaves us rather indifferent, only picking up emotional speed and reliability later on in the film.
The idea to “explain” the character’s feelings via an off-screen narration doesn’t help, unnecessarily cheapening Witherspoon’s acting. Viewers shouldn’t be able to take their eyes off her, immersing in the character’s transformative journey through her adequately minimalist, focused, full-bodied performance. The actress, despite technically being a little too mature for the part, is quite magnetic, embodying all the vulnerability and broken spirit her character needs to overcome to achieve her goal and re-connect with herself. If only the audience was given space to experience what the character is experiencing – instead, they are guided through it by excerpts from Strayed’s diary. Sadly, that doesn’t always guarantee literary value and it’s fair to say Strayed’s observations and opinions on life, love, freedom, etc. often sound naïve and kitschy at times.
Also, despite the innate dramatism of her family backdrop, there is something irritatingly sugaresque about the overall way Strayed’s past is portrayed here. It reminds me of the image of a red barn, an idyllic farms with happy cows we see on stickers put on steaks in store. Deep inside, we know where this meat came from, but yet we agree to exclude this cost of our meal from the equation. Why? Acknowledging it wouldn’t make us monsters, just aware consumers. Just like democratizing the process of acknowledging the dark issues in her family (instead of blindly idealizing the much-missed, lost mother figure, which is a beautifully crafted performance from Laura Dern) could only give the character tools to be a more aware, perceptive traveller, both on the trail and in life. On the positive side, the episodic structure is well matched by the visual style. The texture of the image, its framing, and colors are another great achievement from Laurence Anyways cinematographer Yves Bélanger and editor Martin Pensa.
What’s really alarming to me is that, despite women being central characters here, there’s something unintentionally sexist and judgmental in the way Cheryl’s sexcapades are portrayed in the retrospective bits. The camera seems to pity the character for actions that would probably remain morally transparent if committed by a male protagonist. But she’s a woman, and being one, the most extreme thing she can do to destroy herself is lose dignity. In our androcentric culture, the morally charged act of female “sleeping around” does that without a miss, also bringing a sense of guilt and failure as a bonus. I would expect a different approach from a film basically run by a female character, but apparently good ol’ self-whipping never ceases to work.
Many viewers may respond well to Wild, a catchy story of a failure, loss, and redemption set against the spectacularly stunning natural backdrop. Personally, as much as I believe the symbolism behind changing your last name to “Strayed” after a divorce rings tacky, I also happen to find the film rather flat, despite all the personal – and geographical – ups and downs the character has to surpass on her journey. Not wild about it at all.