by Matt Levine
At its most basic, cinema can be boiled down to two main components: time and space. The ability to leap between worlds and perspectives in a fraction of a second ensures that movies have an innate and powerful ability to evoke (or distort) the passage of time and the contours of an environment. But the emphasis in most films on linearity and cohesion means that this mind-boggling ability is rarely taken full advantage of. Not so in Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club, which comes closer to approximating the time-hopping, free-associative nature of introspective thought than most movies in recent memory.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Producers: Bruna Papandrea, Bill Pohlad, Reese Witherspoon
Writers: Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed (book)
Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger
Editors: Martin Pensa, Jean-Marc
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, Michiel Huisman, W. Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin, Brian Van Holt
Premiere: August 29, 2014 — Telluride Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 5, 2014
US Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling 2012 memoir, Wild follows its autobiographical subject along more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, a hiking path that stretches from the Mojave Desert to northwest Washington. The film (and the book) begin with a scene that harshly disarms our expectations of the tranquil beauty of nature: laboring to the top of a rocky hill, Cheryl gingerly removes a boot, peels off a bloody sock, and rips off a dislodged toenail. It’s an opening that appropriately unsettles you, contrasting the majesty of the scenery with the grueling pain (physical and otherwise) of the humans that traverse it.
Cheryl—hardly an experienced hiker—has decided to march across the entirety of the PCT in order to overcome the horror of her recent life, or (in her own words) to “walk back to the woman my mother thought I would be.” Following the death of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) at 45 from cancer, the already reckless Cheryl has fallen into heroin addiction and sexual promiscuity. “I’m an experimenter,” Cheryl meekly tells her irate best friend (Gaby Hoffmann) when she learns of her various addictions, though in fact Cheryl has become unmoored and aimless after the death of her only guide and anchor, escaping from her loneliness and grief through extreme behavior.
Director Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby faced a difficult task in adapting Strayed’s memoir, which leaps back and forth between a bittersweet present and volatile past with candid humor and sporadic descriptions of brutal self-discovery. But their control of time and space is impressively dexterous, with the film shuttling between past, present, and even future, as brief, indecipherable images reappear later in the film, suddenly gaining new context. In guestbooks placed intermittently throughout the trail, Cheryl records quotes from her favorite authors—Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rice, Ralph Waldo Emerson—which enable flashbacks to her college years, when her mother was attending the same school, belatedly pursuing her degree. Dark, lonely nights in her tent drift into memories of her darkest period of drug addiction and promiscuity. Some images remain completely unexplained and largely metaphoric, including an early shot of a scrap of paper with the word “Wilderness” on it burning in a fire. Along with Vallée and Hornby, editor Martin Pensa (who worked alongside Vallée in the editing room) deserves a great deal of credit for turning these time-melting remembrances into something fluid, affecting, and almost musical. There are, of course, cinematic antecedents for this kind of impressionistic molding of time—Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson come to mind—but it’s still refreshingly unique among a mainstream cinema that prides itself on its narrative clarity.
The film’s stylistic audacity, though, wouldn’t mean much without a character to sympathize with. Reese Witherspoon offers the performance of her career as Cheryl; we’ve known her effortless sense of humor has been there for decades, but Wild displays a simultaneous toughness and vulnerability that seem entirely new. (I detest Walk the Line, but Witherspoon’s great performances in Election and Vanity Fair are far outdone here.) At 38, her ageless beauty still radiates, but with Wild (on which she also served as producer) she seems more willing to take risks and bare herself emotionally onscreen. An episode late in the film in which she meets a sweet-natured Bohemian type in an Oregon town and spends the night with him—having sex for the first time since the collapse of her marriage—is remarkable not only for its tenderness, but for the maelstrom of emotions that Witherspoon clearly exudes. Shortly thereafter, a devastating scene in which she interacts with a young boy hiking with his grandma on the trail drives us to tears as we remember the abortion she had several years earlier; Witherspoon speaks volumes about regret and self-loathing without a single line of dialogue in this scene. The actress is responsible for making Wild something special on an emotional and humanistic, rather than simply aesthetic, level.
The movie isn’t perfect. Laura Dern offers a lively performance as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi, but it’s a tired depiction of saintly, Mother Nature womanhood that also marred The Tree of Life. (That being said, a conversation in which Bobbi guardedly tells Cheryl how much she’s suffered—and how vital it is for her to hold on to her current happiness in light of that—helps rescue the character from the pitfalls of cliché.) Along the same lines, the flashbacks to Cheryl’s past traumas can be too fleeting and impressionistic; her scenes of heroin use and sex with multiple partners, not to mention Bobbi’s earlier physical and emotional abuse at the hands of an alcoholic ex-husband, can come off as overly formalistic, dampening the emotional effect of these scenes (though we still undeniably feel for the grief that Cheryl has undergone).
But it’s foolish to expect a film as beautiful, heartfelt, and volatile as Wild to be perfect. There seems to be a presumption among some filmmakers and critics that aesthetic experimentation and compassionate drama are mutually exclusive, though the best films often blend the two inclinations. Wild demonstrates an effusive sympathy for its characters along with a fervent desire to play with time and space, to make the most of the cinematic medium. Maybe most admirable about the film, however, is its belief in the strength to be found within oneself, which probably sounds like a trite self-help platitude even though triumph over grief and pain can only ever come from inside. Many films find strength in togetherness, in romantic unions or unbreakable friendships, and while this tendency is understandable from a dramatic standpoint it also conceals a hard fact about life: that we're ultimately responsible for grappling with our darkest times on our own. The high-angle close-up of Cheryl Strayed that closes the film helps demonstrate what makes Wild so powerful: the ability to overcome and live and be free resides inside Cheryl the whole time, beneath a brittle outer layer of pain. Even the imagery of the beautiful Western scenery conveys this: there are surprisingly few extraneous shots of the landscape, as almost every image of the terrain is a POV shot or somehow correlates to what Cheryl is going through emotionally. In other words, though Wild superficially has much in common with Into the Wild or Tracks, it’s distinguished by its belief that the landscape of a human life is infinitely rockier than the world that contains it.