It seems like there is no better way of finding yourself, than by losing yourself completely.
Such is the case with Reese Witherspoon’s newest feature Wild, based on the widely popular New York Times Best Seller and Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 favourite “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” written by Cheryl Strayed.
Wild is based on a memoir, and Strayed did in fact trek the whole 1,100 mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail all by herself, and tells a compelling story of survival, wit and true courage, but never is her story original enough for us to really care. Overplayed images of crossing bridges, promises of clean slates and new life, as well as images of iconic natural beauty and wildlife, are some of the reasons Wild never quite settles in with audiences, as it should.
Witherspoon, who dropped out of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes (a role that eventually went to Amy Adams) may have found another passion project and Oscar-caliber character as Strayed. Embodying a troubled young woman who struggled with heroin, constant adultery and the tragic death of her loving and inspiration mother Bobbi (played saintly by the radiant Laura Dern), Witherspoon easily transcends through the screen and into our hearts as a highly empathetic character. Is Strayed a drug addict? Sex addict? Rehabilitating feminist? Many of these questions aren’t really answered by the film’s end or in the countless flashbacks (that easily takes up an alarming amount the film’s runtime) of Strayed highly traumatizing and delicate life, which poses some of the many problems of the film as a whole.
Quebecois filmmaker and go-to Oscar caliber actors-director Jean Marc-Vallée, who helped Matthew McConaughey complete his A-List status as Ronald Woodruff in the highly appreciated Dallas Buyers Club, helms Witherspoon in a highly clichéd and simple narrative where a woman’s only choice and answer for change, is nature. Cue scenes of Strayed connecting with the wildlife by howling with the nearby wolves, numerous shots of her looking up and talking to herself as well as some of the most over-quoted identity passages ever written by Emily Dickenson, Ralph Waldo Emerson and of course Robert Frost, and Wild sinks in the footsteps of other memorable identity finding nature films.
One film in particular that comes to mind, released just last year, is John Curran’s Tracks starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver. Not only does the film tell the story of Robyn Davidson, an author and true living bohemian who conquered the 1,700 mile journey along the west Australian deserts with four camels and a trusty sidekick canine, but Curran offers audiences an audacious and highly inspiring symbolic film filled with deep purpose, meaning and thought. Absent of all the highly Americanized gloss, including; narration, heavy-drama flashbacks and distracting pop culture references found in Wild, Tracks tells the story of a woman who suffered harsher condition, during a lengthier hike with less help from the outside world. By watching both films, it becomes clear that Wild is a film that reaffirms America’s obsession with keeping stories of Americans more relevant than individuals internationally, sadly.
Witherspoon may have delivered the performance of her life as Strayed, a woman who seems to overly dramatize the tragedies in her life by taking drastic measures. Strayed, whose life could have easily been made into a soap-opera miniseries, had the huge privilege of having her book connect with many housewives and identity-riddled middle aged women who found hope and purpose through the pages of her memoir, giving the film adaptation traction and leverage. Witherspoon, who in addition to starring in the film, acts as the films producer as well, transforms herself to a thin Strayed whose conquests from California to Oregon push the bodily limits of a highly tormented and dumbfounded character whose purpose of the quest is questioned repeatedly and given no due sympathy based on her lack of commitment to really anything at all in her life.
Thankfully, the film isn’t all that bad. One of the many strengths of Wild that isn’t ever understood or put into perspective in other films is its ability to relate to many of the average audience members who would ever think of doing such a journey. Vallée sets-up perfect scenes of hiking preparation that blend perfectly with Witherspoon’s mix of humour and daft seriousness, such as her first encounter with a backpack that is twice her height and triple the size of our protagonist. At some points in the beginning of Strayed’s journey, we can’t help but notice Witherspoon resemble a white-washed, patriotic version of Dora the Explorer with her handy-dandy backpack and all the useful things inside it (condoms included, if you could believe it), making someone who is just undeniable to relate to.
Contrary to its title, Wild is a very tame coming-to-terms adventure narrative when the camera is placed on Witherspoon alone. Throughout Strayed personal discoveries, audiences are able to capture the essence of her struggles best with the many characters that come along her path. At times, the film plays with our expectations of the genre, sometimes veering into stylistic thriller/horror territory when she meets a land worker and burley American man Frank (W.Earl Brown), or buddy road film when she meets fellow hitchhiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), or romantic wilderness film when Cheryl meets the gorgeous bearded musician that is easily the hipster equivalent to Christian Grey for hikers in Jonathan (Michael Huisman). Vallée does a fantastic job of toying with different genre expectations, as well as the many stereotypes that come within the road film and the many different characters one comes to expect and know.
Vallée surely keeps the film interesting and demands our attention to every new person Cheryl meets on her quest. Sadly, the film underutilizes some of its strongest casting with poor flashbacks of Cheryl’s husband Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski from The Newsroom, or the understanding and tough loving’ best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. Instead, Vallée focuses on the inner family circle and tragedies of Cheryl young childhood and rough adolescence, by highlighting the deep connection she had with her mother Bobbi and how her death was the defining choice for her travels.
Unfortunately, at this pivotal point in time in the medium, it doesn’t seem like enough to have your main protagonist be a woman when it comes to the adventure, seeking, and identity crisis laden narrative.
Witherspoon does well as Strayed and will surely garner Oscar buzz and a due nomination for her role. Unfortunately, lines such as “I wanna live”, “Find your best self and hold on to it”, and “There is a sunrise and a sunset everyday; its your choice to be there for it” will surely hold the film from being anywhere near Oscar bait when originality and creativeness is one of the key components of Best Picture gold.
Unlike 127 Hours and Into the Wild, Wild suffers from being a recently overplayed genre of strong supporting feminist-driven cinema hitchhiking on the back of other films that did it better.
Wild is a film, lovely dark and deep, but promises too much that it cannot keep. The lose of grief for Cheryl, mixed with a very barren and dry American landscape that is easily trumped in Curran’s Tracks makes the film one that has many miles and blisters to go before it can rest assure of being a new American classic.
Night Film Reviews: 5.5 Out of 10 Stars.
Is Wild just a rehashing of the recent adventure-finding memoir trend of Hollywood or a new American classic? Is Witherspoon as good as her turn as June Carter in Walk the Line or worse? Were there too many flashbacks holding the majority of the film or were they needed? Be spontaneous and leave your comments and wildest thoughts of the film below.