“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.”
I had high hopes going into Wild knowing it was an adaptation by the renowned Nick Hornby and directed by Oscar nominee Jean-Marc Vallee. Visually, it’s one of the best shot films of the year. The performances, both leading and supporting, definitely deserve awards attention. But then there’s the story and the way that it is told. We’ve all had that friend who means well, who genuinely has something entertaining to share, but mumbles and stutters so many times along the way, dragging out the words and losing your concentration just like this Dickensian sentence, that you simply stop caring. That forced and unremarkable technique curtails Wild to an ambitiously pedestrian take on one of the strongest female characters we’ll see for a long while. What a shame.
A spiraling heroin habit and countless sexual encounters, some as quick as a back alley merry-go-round romp in between waitressing shifts, have taken Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) down an unexpected path. Strayed’s not her real last name but more a part of her renewal, a turning over of her new leaf. She’s a lost, strayed pup. Cheryl’s divorced from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) who can no longer unconditionally love her. She suffers from the grim reaper’s insatiable thirst for cancer after the love of her life is taken…her mother Bobbi, played by the otherworldly optimistic Laura Dern. Her trek across the 1,100 mile+ Pacific Crest Trail, a solemn hike that can go from desert heat to mountainous cold without warning, isn’t only about self discovery. It’s about finding herself in relation to everything surrounding her. Hence the title, “Wild.” She doesn’t regret the dirty moments that have molded her, and we get to see how they fit in with who she is once she finishes the self-ascribed Tour de France. I can’t imagine this woman escaping a Christopher McCandless type postmortem fandom had she not held such an amazingly brave spirit before embarking on her journey. It’s empowering stuff.
If not for Jenny Slate’s performance earlier this year in Obvious Child, I’d say Witherspoon’s take on Cheryl Strayed was the most winsome female role of 2014. She makes you laugh, always cursing the day and initially wearing a pack heavier than her frail frame should be able, or even try, to carry. And she makes you worry. Cheryl is a strong presence who we constantly fear for among a sea of indeterminable males. She’s the embodiment of resilience and an unapologetic feminist. Director Jean-Marc Vallee never shies away from giving the voice to his female lead. Yet, sadly, as a male I felt a disconnect. Feminism isn’t just about female rights, but rather pleads for the reasonable equality we all deserve. Unfortunately Wild is way too one-sided. I left it thinking, “I would’ve liked this more if I was a woman.” I know, that’s terrible, and it’s attributed to the horrendous editing and narrow-minded adaptation by Hornby. Nothing about Wild lives up to the title. Great filmmaking allows members of either sex to walk a mile, or 1,100 in this case, in the shoes of their biological opposites. This is nowhere close. Gender is integral to the story, but it never transcends it to encompass all of humanity.
Vallee reminds us over and over how much time is left in the movie. When the journey is more of a tortoise than a hare, that’s not a wise story device to use. We’re reminded that she’s only 100 miles in or 30 days on the trail. For any film an audience member checking the clock is the kiss of death. I looked four times. If anything about Wild really lives up to the name, it’s the scattered editing and voice-overs. Some of it flashes by so fast you’ll scratch your head at what you saw. And the in and out voice-overs don’t service the story or propel the character’s arc. Most films use it as filler or aesthetic; few make it push the story forward. Cheryl Strayed’s journey is breathtaking and deserved to be told, but it’s done an injustice by this final product.
The comparisons to Into the Wild will always come up. If you judge both films by their covers, you see a man and a woman out in the open looking towards nature. Into the Wild, perhaps one of the best American films of the last ten years, couldn’t be more different from Wild. Both are road movies, yet in the journey of Christopher McCandless we encounter unforgettable people. Who we meet, when we meet them, and why they enter the story is as crucial as the protagonist’s own motivation. In that respect, Wild is forgettable. Nobody besides Cheryl really matters. I think Into the Wild is about literally becoming a part of nature, completely giving yourself to the great outdoors. Compared to that Wild is a road trip we know is finite. At times it’s harrowing and can even sweep you up entirely because of Witherspoon’s career best performance. Then it ended, and mixed in with high peaks and low valleys, I felt like I had run a marathon I already knew I would finish. Wild is good, but it won’t stick with you, it won’t change you.
“I wouldn’t do a single thing differently.”
Rating: 3 out of 5