Film Review: Wild
We open with Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) close to the end of her 1,000-mile journey, overlooking a mountainous range on the Pacific Crest Trail. As she loosens a battered and bloody nail from her big toe, there’s little doubt of her mettle – and when a boot – the one she removed in order to detach that nail then tumbles down the mountainside, we understand that she is not on a lucky streak.
This is our introduction to one of cinema’s loveable underdogs. As she screams her frustration into the canyon, we identify – we implicitly feel the raw exasperation of her animal scream. Wild. What follows is a retracing of this young woman’s steps and an unravelling of the tragic events that led her to take this extreme trek, unqualified and unprepared, across America’s most unforgiving landscape.
Does not transcend gender
It has been written elsewhere that the humanity that drives Wild transcends gender – that the protagonist could be of any background and any sex – but this is difficult to agree with. Of course, the urge to spiritually cleanse oneself of a troubled past is universal but, at least in a tonal sense, the fact that Cheryl is female informs nearly every key dramatic moment.
For example, watching an emotionally damaged young woman alone hitching a ride at night with a burly male stranger carries added tension to what might otherwise be a pedestrian moment. Her inexperience, diminutive stature and overall vulnerability coupled with the constant threat from male interest propels proceedings considerably. The sense of impending danger provides an engine that carries this episodic, non-linear narrative throughout – we undoubtedly worry about Cheryl in such a way that cultural conditioning or gender stereotyping might have prevented had she been male.
Early emotional investment
The real key to our engagement is the way in which director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and scriptwriter Nick Hornby (his third screenplay following Fever Pitch and An Education) win our investment in Cheryl from the off. With an early scene lasting several minutes, we simply watch her prepare her giant rucksack for the hike. There’s no dialogue, but the sequence is both comical and oddly touching – so much is communicated in the packing, it’s clear that this is someone for whom the odds are literally stacked.
We’re repeatedly invited inside Cheryl’s head as various memories are triggered by events and experiences throughout her trek. Laura Dern populates these memories, bringing her childlike purity as Bobbi, Cheryl’s mother – with Dern’s signature warmth helping to concrete the idea that the pain of missing someone can manifest itself physically.
Deftly directed by Dallas dude
In lesser hands these transitions might have felt less than organic, but Vallée makes them the film’s strong suit. Flashback quickly becomes a dirty word – the way in which we witness key moments in Cheryl’s past are brilliantly conceived, always lucidly transitioning from present to past in a sensual, textural, fully integrated and intensely subjective manner. Smells, tastes, music – all conspire beautifully to send us backwards and forwards as we piece together her reasons for making this journey.
Wild is a triumph in a minor key – if not so much for its source material, which eventually leads the film to wander, and a final act that risks outstaying its welcome, then for a director with an exceptionally sturdy hand and an actress who is cast to perfection.
Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée; US biography/drama, 2014, 115 mins;
Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Thomas Sadoski
Premiered March 12