2015 Academy Awards, 87th Annual Academy Awards, abusive childhood, Art Alexakis, based on a book, based on a true story, Best Actress nominee, Best Supporting Actress nominee, brother-sister relationships, casual sex, Cathryn de Prume, Cheryl Strayed, cinema, Dallas Buyers Club, dead mother, director-editor, dramas, drug addiction, dysfunctional marriage, film reviews, films, flashback narrative, flashbacks, Gaby Hoffmann, grief, hiking, infidelity, isolation, Jean-Marc Vallee, Keene McRae, Kevin Rankin, Laura Dern, Martin Pensa, memoir, mother-daughter relationships, Movies, multiple editors, Nick Hornby, Oscar nominee, overcoming adversity, Pacific Crest Trail, Reese Witherspoon, self-discovery, self-help, self-improvement, set in 1990s, sex addiction, Wild, Yves Bélanger
Author C.S. Lewis once described grief as “like a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape.” While this is certainly a poetic and serene way to look at it, I’ve always equated the emotion with something older and a bit more mythological, personally. As far as I’m concerned, grief is a hydra: cut off one head and numerous ones sprout up to take its place. In order to truly overcome grief, one needs to get right to the heart of the matter…trying to tackle each individual feeling, each moment of pain, sorrow and heartbreak is as pointless a task as Hercules trying to sever each individual head, only for two more to grow back. In order to truly overcome grief, one must confront the inciting incident head on: emotional honesty, no matter how painful, is the only true way out.
When Cheryl Strayed started out on her 1,100-mile trek down the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to Canada, she was motivated by grief: after losing her beloved mother to cancer, Strayed spiraled into a mess of drug addiction, marital infidelity and self-destructive behavior, culminating in the realization that she either had to get better or risk a complete and total meltdown. Her intensely arduous undertaking (difficult for an expert hiker, all but impossible for a complete novice like Cheryl) would begin as a way to find some sort of peace in her life but would end with her finding something more important: herself. In the hands of French filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee, Strayed’s journey comes to vivid life with Wild (2014), based on her memoir of he experience. While the story is an interesting rumination on grief, the film ends up being disjointed and rather rote, a decided step down from Vallee’s previous effort, the similarly Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club (2013).
Employing a flashback structure, Wild starts us in the “present day” (June 1995), as Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) is just beginning her incredibly long hike, before jumping us backwards to get a sense of the events that led up to her decision. We see her relationship with her hard-working, single mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) and younger brother, Leif (Keene McRae)…we see Cheryl and Bobbi taking college classes together…we see Bobbi diagnosed with a particularly vicious form of cancer…and, of course, we see Cheryl’s life collapse around her after the death of her mother. Falling into a toxic combo of drug addiction (first smoking, then snorting, finally shooting smack), casual sex with strangers (particularly troublesome given her current married status) and self-hatred, Cheryl seems doomed, burning alive by the intense heat of her own grief.
After hitting rock bottom, Cheryl makes the spur of the moment decision that would end up changing her entire life: she decides to hike all 1,000+miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, with no previous hiking experience. Her (now ex-) husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), is cautiously supportive. Her best friend, Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann) thinks she’s nuts. Regardless, Cheryl sets out on her journey with no idea of what she’s doing, a pack that’s at least five times heavier than it should be and more determination than a small city. Along the way, Cheryl will see plenty of natural beauty, run into a few natural hazards and meet lots of interesting folks, including fellow hikers, a kindly farmer, a reporter for the “Hobo Times,” sinister hunters and a Grateful Dead cover band. She’ll learn to rely on herself and the kindness of strangers but she’ll also learn an even more important lesson: no matter how white-hot the pain of grief may be, life does, in fact, go on. Sometimes, all we can do is go along for the ride and see where it takes us.
As a story, Wild has an almost irresistible pull: there’s something primal and inherently satisfying about watching a damaged, fractured human being take a healing journey, especially when the backdrop is the awe-inspiring beauty of the great outdoors. Witherspoon does a great job bringing Cheryl to life, making the cinematic version feel like a real, flesh-and-blood person as opposed to just a character. As usual, Witherspoon is an all-in performer: in order to fully appreciate Cheryl’s redemption, we need to see her degradation and Witherspoon holds nothing back, whatsoever, resulting in one of her rawest roles since Freeway (1996). While I didn’t think that her performance in Wild was the very best of last year, it certainly deserved the Oscar nomination and proves, if nothing else, that she continues to defy the expectations imposed on “mainstream” Hollywood starlets by the industry, as a whole.
While Witherspoon’s performance is typically strong, however, the film is a lot more problematic, in general. My biggest complaint comes via Vallee’s flashback structure, which ends up doing two things, neither of which seems desired: it tends to make the narrative unnecessarily confusing (in particular, the timeline seems all over the place) and makes the film feel like more of a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole. For the most part, the film breaks down thusly: Cheryl walks around, flashes back to drug use and orgies, meets interesting folks, lather, rinse, repeat. In short order, Wild begins to seem distressingly formulaic, which certainly robs the film of much of its tension: even during presumably high-stakes moments like the redneck hunters, Wild seems constrained by its structure.
There’s a sparse, spare quality to much of the film that’s both lovely and thematically important (Cheryl is, after all, desperately searching for some sort of stillness within herself, the same stillness echoed by the natural landscape) but this spare quality is constantly dashed by the endless flashbacks. Perhaps if the peeks into the past had felt more organic and motivated, as opposed to part of a regimented structure, they would have retained more impact and had less (negative) effect on the film’s tone. As it stands, however, Wild ends up feeling more disjointed and piecemeal than it does cohesive.
I also had a problem with the relationship between Cheryl and her mother, at least as depicted in the film. While I’m not familiar with Strayed’s actual memoir, I have to assume that the intense connection between her and her mom is better delineated on the page than it is on the screen. As depicted, however, we really don’t get a clear sense of this devotion: Bobbi seems quirky, positive and fun-minded, sure, but the flashbacks to her and Cheryl don’t seem to hint at an on-screen relationship that’s any more intense than any other cinematic mother-daughter pairing. Losing her mother seems to be the catalyst for Cheryl’s spiral into a drug and sex-fueled hell but, prior to her death, the pair just seem to get along okay: for me, at least, this ended up being a bit of a disconnect from the film.
Acting-wise, Wild is full of good performances, although the vast majority end up being short, bite-sized little bits as opposed to more substantial scenes: this is very much the story of Strayed and Witherspoon is, for the most part, always the focal point. Despite garnering a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Dern’s performance as the doomed Bobbi: despite being a big fan, her transition from happy-go-lucky to hair-pulling felt too abrupt and nothing really stuck out for me. Ditto for Gaby Hoffmann, who ends up with a few minutes of screen time as Cheryl’s friend, which seems a bit of a waste given Hoffmann’s ability to handily steal focus. Kevin Rankine is personable as Greg, the hiker that Cheryl keeps bumping into on the trail, but Keene McRae is fairly awful as brother Leif…it’s a real “six of one, half-dozen of the other” scenario.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Wild but was never blown away: considering how great I thought Dallas Buyers Club was, this definitely struck me as a bit of a disappointment. While I think the core story is a fascinating one (if the notion of a complete novice hiking over a thousand miles to “find” herself doesn’t strike you as fascinating, the core issue definitely doesn’t reside with the movie), the actual film never really clicked for me. To each their own, of course: while the actual film ended up being a bit of a let-down, Strayed’s story is interesting enough to make this worth a watch, even if it’s decidedly more run-of-the-mill than it could have been.