Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wild Review: We Need More Stories Like This

The moment I chose to watch today’s entry was when someone asked me to see American Sniper with them. In an instant, it occurred to me that all the mainstream films I’ve seen have been about guys, and going to see one more would just be... really excessive. Eastwood is a good director, but I didn’t have an especial interest in that story. The only thing that would satisfy my principles would be finding a picture centered on a female role. And so we come to Wild, which is probably the most beautiful movie of 2014.

Wild is based on a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed. It describes the journey Ms. Strayed took, going to the Mojave Desert to hike a 1,100 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. It starts with her gearing up in a California motel, and concludes with her arrival at the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon/Washington border. As Cheryl struggles along the path, her only companions are the thoughts and memories that both torment her and explain to us why she’s doing this.

From its beginning, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film hooked me. The opening scene is gripping, and a perfect sort of summary of the entire picture: Cheryl struggles (in this case, a gruesome repercussion of extended hiking), she makes some bad choices (that was a dumb place to stop), and yet she persists. It nicely sets up her willpower, as well as her caustic, frustrated emotional state.

I haven’t seen Vallée’s other notable work, Dallas Buyers Club, but Wild follows through on that beginning with exceptional style and so much raw heart that I want to watch DBC just to see how it was helmed. The trek along the PCT is conveyed so well, and the intercutting to memories of Cheryl's mother (Laura Dern, wonderful here) is genuinely touching, beautiful, and lyrical.

Equally impressive are the flashback sequences, which border on hallucinations. And it’s impossible not to be moved by what’s conveyed in them – as portrayed here by Reese Witherspoon, her role’s story is highly-compelling. Her past is repulsive, but you’d have to be somewhat insane or lacking all empathy to get judgmental with all the context for her actions laid at your feet.

Basically, when her doting, upbeat mother died from cancer, Cheryl completely fell apart. Her mother was the most important figure in her life, and her younger brother just disappeared to deal with his own grief. So, she became (forgive the expression) a smack w---e, doing heroin and sleeping with anyone who wanted sex. Her husband (ouch) did pull her out of the drug den she shacked up in, but he also didn’t want to keep their seven-year marriage going any longer. Like a truly-loving person, he didn’t bombard her with guilt, and offered whatever support he could as she decided to hike her way to clarity and personal discovery.

The mega-hike she embarked on is even more gripping. She began this trip with zero hiking experience, learning through brutal trial and error. Alone, the sense of danger and tension is amazing – not just the possibility that some random man might sexually assault her, but dehydration, animal attacks, and infection could do her in at any time.

The crazy thing is that if you were doing heroin and having unprotected sex with strangers, then you'd be making a healthier choice by walking eleven hundred miles alone and ill-prepared. In short, she felt so alone inside, that she made herself alone on the outside. And once therapy failed her, she got a shock that made her quit using drugs regardless, then the only way to deal with everything she felt and did was to make herself as literally alone as possible.

When you get away from all distractions, you have no choice but to reflect and deal with yourself, your choices, and the things that either hold you back or make you hurt yourself. Ultimately, Cheryl came out the other side more defined than before because she tackled such a massive challenge with little more than her own will and the assistance of some kindly strangers.

It's great to see how many dumb mistakes Strayed makes, how she learns, how she perseveres and deals with whatever she can't do easily. The fact that long segments of Wild are filmed or scripted like a fever dream only serves to thrust you right into her mindset, and to relate to the adversities in her life. When you're truly just lost - mentally or emotionally - time becomes so fluid, with past, present, and future becoming mixed and intertwined.

Visually, this is one of my favorite films of 2014. The editing is terribly smart, matched by a lovely sensibility that ensured each shot was framed perfectly... The PCT is a gorgeous location - I've only been up on a mountain once. Hell, I've only been around real mountains for one week out of my whole life. Their beauty is shocking and glorious, and it’s displayed here remarkably well. I'm so glad that the DVD I rented kept the letterbox ratio, which let all the grandeur come right through my TV. This would have been such a great movie to see in the theater...

The score and sound work is subtle, yet highly-effective. What's incredible is that not only do we get to feel so intimate with every aspect of her journey, but that I think the story itself would be just as clear and just as moving if the film didn't feature any dialogue at all. But I guess that goes to the strength of the performances, with both Witherspoon and Dern turning in career-best work, and their Oscar nominations for same were well-earned. Every member of the supporting cast – even the singer from Everclear, who appears as a tattoo artist – is excellent as well.

Vallée’s picture also makes the naturalistic and smart choice to not ever be one-note, and certainly not to drag the audience through a miserable, draining experience. There’s a lot of wry humor, some of the best of which occurs in Cheryl’s meeting with a parasitic, narrow-minded, self-centered journalist. As a contrast to all the kindness Strayed encountered, that level of condescension was painfully-funny. It’s hard not to think about that moment and how quick people are to force their own agenda on others, to use people while (wrongly) thinking they're giving something sufficient back, and to push people into telling them what they expect to hear.

When the film ended, I immediately started researching the picture and memoir, which revealed some incredible facts. Witherspoon says she really carried a super-heavy pack a lot of the time, and they shot in such isolation that the actress helped the crew carry their equipment. Also, the real life Cheryl Strayed was later contacted by a woman who read the memoir and recognized aspects of Cheryl’s early life – the ladies turned out to be half-sisters. The only thing I was disappointed to learn was that Wild was released on December 3rd. I'd have loved if it came out earlier in the year, so it could generate buzz and not deal with the bs of all the industry's award-bait films appearing at the year's end.

In my long run through 2014’s movies, this is the only one that I watched twice. When Wild ended, I wanted to watch it again immediately - although I don't like dramas about people suffering this kind of collapse. It's an incredible look at depression, self-destruction, and an attempt at renewal. One of the notes that I made after the viewing reads, ”Holy s—t, it's like a one-woman non-fiction Interstellar. It’s also sort of an incredible counterpoint to Boyhood.” I can’t recommend this picture highly enough – you should already be watching it.


  1. Okay, you've convinced me-I'll give it a shot. I was worried that this might be in the vein of Eat,Pray,Love(tried to watch some of that once and the pretentiousness of "Ooo, I can eat carbs in Italy!" was enough to turn me off) but then again, Nick Hornby did the screenplay, which adds on to the quality you have described here.

    1. Yup! Then come back after you see it and thank me profusely.

      I had no idea E, P, L was that kind of movie. How... useless and stupid.

      I swear to god, I'd completely flip the film industry's use of women and minorities if I had a chance to contribute to it in some way. And women's films rarely being like Maid in Manhattan or How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days would be, like, step 1.

      I really hope you enjoy it, lady t!


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