Movie Review: Wild (2014)

wildNature is an elusive entity; an aspect of life that has mystified us with its insurmountable beauty, promised us peaceful solitude and transcendental freedom for those willing to attain it, and has served up harsh realities due to its unforgiving changes that prove that underestimating its force can be a tragic downfall. It seems nature falls into two varying spectrums, the first being a romanticized acceptance of nature as an Eden that grants us salvation from our first-world industrialized lives and the second serving as a warning that nature is not only uncontrollable, it’s a struggle that takes you to the very edge of death itself. It’s a point of view that has the pioneering thoughts of Thoreau, Emerson, and Worsdworth on one side and the real life experiences of Aaron Ralston and Christopher McCandless on the other who in 127 Hours and Into the Wild respectively represent how nature can conquer the self instead of revitalizing it. This isn’t the intention, though, behind Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film Wild which seeks to show that although the struggle with nature is very real that in itself can serve as a transcendental rebirth of self. Based on the true memoir of Cheryl Strayed, Wild is an Augustinian confession of personal acceptance rather than moral salvation, where the sins, resentment, and mistakes of the past are cleansed through a thoroughly risky, unbearably painful, and exceptionally beautiful journey of rediscovery. Unlike Ralston and McCandless, Strayed knows the dangers that lie ahead, knows she’s completely unprepared, and is daunted by the impossible task of trekking the entire Pacific Crest Trail. And yet that’s the poetic, soulful point of this beautiful, tragic, and slightly flawed film, that life itself is a journey no one can prepare for whether it’s the sudden craters of losing a loved one, the cracks and deviations on the path of relationship foundations, or the temptations of leaving the path you’ve chosen for easy fixes on the journey. It’s an emotively potent yet slightly aimless in messaging film that shows the maturation of Vallé even if Wild shares the same elusive flaws as his previous film Dallas Buyers Club as they both adopt a congenial and inoffensive tone to portray a pseudo-psychological fable about the fall from grace and the rise to redemption.

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is sort of like the demented cousin of Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love” in the sense that while they both share a familial root in presenting an entirely intimate feminine portrayal of what it’s like to be confined in a defined societal trap “Eat Pray Love” is entirely masturbatory and whiny in its self-congratulations while “Wild” is a tale of authentic grit and honest self-reflection. This personal redemption story of a flawed individual accepting those mistakes as markers in the path of life is a befitting topic for screenwriter Nick Hornby whose own novels ranging from “High Fidelity” to “About a Boy” are about unfocused, disillusioned, and damaged characters seeking to set their paths straight. Hornby’s adaptation is one of honest guidance where Strayed’s original novel in all of its painful occurrences, grief centered motivations, and obtained through suffering revelations are captured with a sympathetic, nonjudgmental, and naturally blemished presentation. We first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) about to embark on her 1,000 mile hike with a bag so gargantuan in hilarity that it’s clearly a symbolic metaphor towards the baggage she’s carrying from her previous life onto the trail which eventually becomes more compact as she becomes more confident, learned, and accepting of what she actually needs in her journey and symbolically her life. It’s a story of isolated solitude and a self-induced detox from the pain, mistakes, and torments that reality brings with it as Cheryl’s random encounters with strangers along the way—both pleasant and potentially dangerous—and her physical environment interactions bring with them flashbacks of those worldly weights that are freed from her shoulders every time they emerge from her subconscious. Hornby balances these heavy moments of tragedy and the tarnishing of self-help clichés with some witty moments and humorous breaks, such as the impromptu interview with Cheryl from a traveling reporter of the Hobo Times that makes you laugh in all of its absurdity. All in all Hornby’s adaptation of Wild is a serviceable and agreeable interpretation of Cheryl Strayed’s words and experiences that only occasionally gets frayed from its montage heavy flashbacks, convenient voice over heavy ending, and its rather simplistic themes that could have used a tad more nuance as was exercised in Strayed’s original novel.

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But Wild’s flaws aren’t entirely noticeable in its elegant and straightforward filmic style that Jean-Marc Vallée has developed over the years with similar invisibly flawed films from The Young Victoria to last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. All of these films have earnest intentions, credibly emotive deliveries, and appropriately paced running times that make their beautiful moments shine far brighter than the canned, prepackaged sentiments that reside at the core of their seemingly significant surfaces. This might seem like an overt and callous criticism, but in fact it’s an acknowledgment of Vallée’s talents as a Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, and James Cameron like filmmaker that allows the manipulation of emotion to be the core driver of his films making them resoundingly relatable and heartbreakingly resonant despite the fact that they may not ever enter the realm of timeless relevance. It’s a style of simple histrionic tricks aided mostly by pristine cinematography, effective editing, and of course a centerpiece performance that brings the film’s expressiveness to an inspiring whole. Throughout Wild Vallée utilizes the gorgeous cinematography of Yves Bélanger (Laurence Anyways, Dallas Buyers Club) that captures the wonders of nature through its digital lens just as authentically as it lingers on painful images, such as Strayed removing a damaged toenail from her bloody foot. It’s this blend of beauty and pain that makes it such an effectively manipulative experience of overwhelming determination and desperate resilience in the face of doubt showing that Vallée comes ever closer as a mature filmmaker to bring us slightly into the psyche of his subject instead of relying on our preconceived notions of sympathy towards stories of struggle. There’s some beauty to be found in the momentarily sporadic editing from Martin Pensa and Vallée himself, but there’s also a missed opportunity to paint an entire portrait of a character where certain characters of influence get left behind and a thorough understanding of them and their impact on Cheryl would heighten the impact of why she must leave all that behind. However, flaws within a story about a flawed individual seem almost necessary to the process and though Wild doesn’t feel in the end as a completely thought out film from Vallée it certainly shows us a filmmaker maturing in his talents, especially in directing his core subjects in the realm of acting.

Vallée has made a reputation for working with actors and bringing out in them performances that otherwise wouldn’t have been expected of them earlier in their careers before coming under his directorial tutelage. Seeing Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club or Emily Blunt in The Young Victoria certainly suggests that Vallée knows how to bring out subtlety, vulnerability, and relatable strength within his usually flawed and complex protagonists, which is the same tactic used here with America’s darling Reese Witherspoon. Known for playing usually sweet and sassy characters ranging from her Award winning turn as June Carter in Walk the Line to the infamous fashion aficionado turned lawyer Elle Woods in Legally Blonde it wasn’t until her darkened turn in Jeff Nichols’ Mud that we began to see the exceptional qualities she could bring beyond mere presence and charm. And with Wild it’s a riveting performance but not one of blatant showy melodrama but one of a believably fractured woman whose strength is beyond question and still showcases its limits. Her performance is balanced in showcasing that needed endurance to tolerate physical pain and mental anguish, but it’s the flashbacks that really ignite a layered performance of a promiscuous, drug addled victim of grief that really resonates throughout her spiritual awakening. The only essential presence utilized around her is the talents of Laura Dern who is always exceptional and never disappoints as the overly positive mother who continues to look for the good despite the constant suffering she endures at the hands of abusive husbands, educational barriers, and illness. Of course a Vallée film really only allows for a few people to stand out and a few problems with the script never delving deep enough into side relationships, including Strayed’s friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) and her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski). It’s a personal character portrait though and Wild becomes an emotionally resonant tale of isolationist grace and societal redemption mostly through the captivating performance of Witherspoon who carries it far easier than her Strayed carries that weighted bag.

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Certainly the pilgrimage theme of walking to find something more has been a cultural interest for centuries and Strayed’s memoir follows this idealistic insight whether she considered its hackneyed origins or not in her own travels. And yet, Strayed’s account goes slightly beyond that convention because it’s a thoroughly reflective and moralistically vague confession of self which Vallée’s film only approaches on its surface of importance instead of treading into the artistic depths of challenging thematic potential. Wild might be in the end a feel good Hollywood production of typical three act generalities and the pop-psychology slant towards the typical fall from grace and found in redemption tale that has been done on numerous occasions before. However, Wild has an emotional grounding that is clearly sought out through the maturing direction of Vallée and the effectively condensed script of Nick Hornby making the audience sympathetic in Strayed’s resilient spirit, daunting determination, and flawed desperation. It’s a film filled with minor flaws reflecting on the subjective experience of an equally flawed protagonist that borders on the edge of being an instruction guide while having momentary hints at a higher end of being a thought-provoking experience on what it means to really be free. Wild might not change your life, but it certainly has enough to be discovered in its typical existence to make you think there might be more out in the world to be experienced and more within yourself to be engaged and that’s an important takeaway to note.

Grade: B

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