Review: Wild (2015)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby
Based on “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
Cast: Reece Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin & Keene McRae
Runtime: 115 min // Certificate: 15
“I’ve always been someone’s daughter or mother or wife. I never got to be in the driver’s seat of my own life.” – Bobbi Grey (Laura Dern)
Given the air of superficiality suggested by the film’s narrow promotional materials, you could be forgiven for assuming that Wild is just another tepid entry in the “White Woman Problems” genre that always seems to lift its dull, empty head above the parapet in the run up to awards season. Indeed, in many ways that’s exactly what it is; it’s a biographical account of a privileged woman’s decision to take time off from the trials, tribulations and trivialities of everyday life in order to – for lack of a better phrase – “find herself” in the wake of some personal tragedies. If this sounds like your worst nightmare then steer well clear because there’s nothing new to see here. Nonetheless, despite this there’s a universality to Wild, not just in its delicate and authentic handling of grief and guilt but also in its trickier exploration of its central character’s desire to feel as though she has some real autonomy and control over her own life and circumstances, that transcends the more problematic trappings of its genre.
Based on her memoir of the same name, the film chronicles Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon; Inherent Vice) arduous trek across a 1,100 mile portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, a hiking and equestrian trail through the states of California, Oregon and Washington, as she tries to come to terms with past mistakes and work through her grief at the untimely death of her Mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, best known for last year’s award-winning Dallas Buyers Club, the film begins with an exploration of Cheryl’s amateurism and initial lack of willpower before delving into her troubled history as a grief-stricken divorcée, the daughter of an abusive Father and, in her mid-twenties, a heroin addict. Over the course of just under two hours, Vallée presents Cheryl at the absolute nadir of her life and asks the audience to confront just how categorically and easily a seemingly well-grounded person like Cheryl can slip into the most traumatic and desperate of situations.
Wild begins with a gruesome shot of Cheryl tearing a bloodied toenail off her foot and the visual metaphors don’t get much subtler from there, but the film’s honesty and admiration for its subject are nonetheless hugely endearing. Hornby’s screenplay, which is as chock-full of cheese and faux-profundity as you might well expect from the author of “About a Boy”, does not idolise Cheryl inasmuch as it accepts and appreciates her for the flawed human that she is, was and will no doubt continue to be once her journey ends. The sporadic nature of the narrative works to elucidate the powerful impact grief can have on a person, with random memories from Cheryl’s past littered throughout the piece in a manner that is non-chronological but still quite pointedly structured and focussed. We learn about her past by focussing on her present; the trials and hardships of her hike mirror the pain she suffered in the years preceding it, and though Hornby’s approach to his subject is often ponderous and somewhat aloof, his ability to unfurl the personality beneath the character’s stern demeanour is ultimately richly rewarding.
Grief, then, drives Wild at every turn, and the revelations about Cheryl’s past are all carefully constructed to match an event or a sight that she encounters on her hike. There is, however, a deeper but undernourished layer to the film that seems much more concerned with female autonomy and a person’s ability to take control of their situation and circumstances. Witherspoon’s performance is like nothing she’s done before, and she allows herself to become fully – and quite literally – immersed in Cheryl’s plight, throwing herself bodily into the mud, the rain, the snow and the pain that comes to define her character. Yet it is when Cheryl is alone in her tent, remembering, reminiscing and regretting all the moments that brought her to the point she’s at, that Witherspoon puts in her best work. The flashbacks and the memories all point to a woman who, like her Mother, isn’t “in the driver’s seat” of her own life. Every single thing she does is in the service of her guilt. The film literalises the painful process of working through loss and grief by making them feel like sentient beings, directing Cheryl and eating away at her independence and control. When she tears off her toenail, she removes the cause of the pain yet still the pain remains. When she walks through the desert, the pain of the heroin needle in her leg is replaced by the pain of the walk itself. She tackles pain with pain, and the film’s main concern thus seems to be the search for a healthier way to tackle regret and guilt than letting it define you.
And yet, alas, it’s all so very obvious, and that’s a real shame. Hornby’s screenplay is so blunt that some of the more dramatic moments lose their ferocity, while the humour doesn’t quite complement the darker and more ponderous scenes as well as it ought to. Witherspoon’s performance is great (though not quite as great as Dern’s, whose low-key turn as Cheryl’s Mother is quite simply devastating) and Vallée captures the simultaneous beauty and misery of Cheryl’s hike like a natural, but the script itself doesn’t really do justice to the story. The cliché of the metaphorical journey being more important than the literal one is hammered home far too forcefully, and as such you never quite get the sense that it has all that much to say beyond the very obvious. Sure, there are a number of intimate moments that burn with a tragic honesty, but they’re often undermined a tad by Hornby’s inability to let the characters breathe without his wordy meddling.
The film’s cumbrous nature won’t work for everyone (as one hugely dissatisfied man in the cinema, whose response as the credits began to roll was “we missed Monday Night Football for that!?”, will no doubt testify) but after a shaky and somewhat meandering opening, I couldn’t help but be sucked in by Wild’s charms and its infectious belief that everything, no matter how bad things get, can work out well if you let it. The film maintains just enough cynical realism in its final stretch to avoid a bog-standard “feel good” ending, so if you embrace Wild for what it is – an occasionally shallow but always well-meaning study of how grief, loneliness and a lack of belonging can combine to destroy a person’s life – then there’s little danger that you’ll feel the journey was wasted and you should come out the other side feeling refreshed and maybe even a little bit liberated. There’s enough humour to prevent the film becoming a maudlin, overbearing slog of tear-stick drama and misery, and what drama there is often feels authentic and raw in spite of Hornby’s best efforts to overegg the pudding. The dirt, the sweat and the grime that cakes Witherspoon for much of the film’s runtime is well-earned, and she carries what easily could’ve been a pointless and meaningless treatise on how awful life is for rich white women on her shoulders with an effortless but fierce determination. Unlike most “deglamourisations” that occur around awards season, this one feels honest and heartfelt, and helps grant Wild an edge over most other films in its genre, even though it isn’t a film I can ever envisage myself watching again.