By Paul Sawchuk
Wild is a 2014 film starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed and directed by Quebec filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée. While I would typically use this space to review a recent film just released in theatres or on Blu-ray, I aim to also use this space for retroactive discussion and review films that may not have been seen en masse or that may have been overlooked – even if I was one of those people who overlooked it in the first place.
Wild, however, wasn’t overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and received its due in Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for Witherspoon. I guess that the reason I’m reviewing this now, in lieu of a new film, is two fold. One, it’s a very good film and subverts a viewer’s expectation on many levels, and two, there’s something to be said for bucking the trend and not “keeping up” for the sake of keeping up. Also, I haven’t seen Black Mass yet, or anything really worth reviewing otherwise, and I wanted to write about something interesting, so here we go.
Wild has all the marks of a film that is actively baiting for awards. Big star? Check. Autobiographical source material? Check. Journey across ‘Murica? Check. That last one may be a little unjustified as a criticism, but looking at the grand scope of America is usually honey to Academy voters. Yet Wild isn’t a celebratory film. It doesn’t revel in the cultural artifacts of America; it’s a character journey, warts and all.
Vallée previously directed the largely successful Dallas Buyers Club in 2013, and a well known Quebecois film C.R.A.Z.Y. in 2005. Wisely eschewing the idolization of his heroes, Vallée instead chooses to highlight the flaws in his characters and creates an uncomfortable distance from them. After the death of her mother, a sex and drug fueled grieving process and its resultant divorce, Cheryl decides to walk the 1100 mile long Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from its beginning at the Mexican border to the Canadian border end on the west coast.
Early in the film Cheryl is shown struggling to lift her massive pack prior to leaving, and we could be forgiven if we assume that this will be a journey where she learns to strengthen and better herself. However, we shouldn’t forget the film’s opening shot, where Cheryl is shown mid-journey, removing a too-tight boot to reveal a bloody toe where a toenail used to be. Immediately, Vallée tells us that not only is this journey not going to be linear, it will be ugly. Cheryl is no American hero. She’s on a journey working through some very real problems.
Those problems? Cheryl is abrasive, paranoid, and easily succumbs to her basest desires. Her penchant for drug use and sex as a way to grieve after her mother’s death is what cost her her marriage. Perhaps she assumes she can use the PCT as a way to counter her grief, yet along her journey we witness her fears of being a lone woman along the trail. Being in the mid-nineties, she must rely on maps and the goodness of strangers, yet sometimes that good nature appears aggressive, and she is constantly apprehensive about the men she meets on her journey. The threat of sexual violence seeps through many of her encounters, but only seems justified once, where she meets two hunters, one of which followers her after their initial meeting before she is able to safely get away.
What are we to make of her assumptions, since we’re viewing her journey through her own lens? Vallée asks us this question without providing a clear answer. Likewise, Cheryl’s relationship with her mother (Laura Dern) was equally as abrasive. Cheryl, in a somewhat naive youthfulness, chastises her mother for spending years with an abusive, alcoholic husband and then further for not paying attention to their poor financial situation on top of that. While lesser films may have turned these scenes into sappy character moments, Vallée lets the situation stand alone without inappropriate highlights or music, and we see that as an autobiographer (the film comes from Strayer’s own account), Strayer is very critical of herself. Yes, in the end she finds strength to overcome herself and accomplish the journey, but she had to come to terms with the truth of her vulnerability and faults.
Wild is a sort of anti-heroes journey, much like Dallas Buyers Club. We see Cheryl’s prejudice, and alienation as her crux, and we don’t always feel for her. That, and the openness of the fields and valleys that Cheryl travels, is the real strength of Wild. Cheryl is not some character being exposed to the wild and learning some life-changing lesson, Vallée isn’t interested in something so base. Wild is about openness, honesty, and how ugly that truth may actually be, and the satisfaction of honestly realizing our faults and accepting them.