Ah yes, the “person finds themselves by going off into nature” sub-genre. Definitely not my jam. Few films have completely baffled me in their popularity more than the reigning ‘king’ of this type of movie: Sean Penn’s pretentious, idiocy-idolizing Into The Wild (2007). I hate that movie. I hate what is stands for, I hate how long it is, I hate how smug it is, and I hate that I’m probably at least a little bit wrong about it given how much everyone else likes it.
I was worried I would be equally befuddled by Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild, another raved-about awards-time movie which shares a lot in common with Into The Wild. Not just because their titles contain the same word, but because both are true stories about individuals who have had enough with their old lives and escape into the wilderness to soul-search, meeting interesting characters and wrestling with inner demons as they brave the treacherous obstacles nature lays out before them.
Luckily, I found that Vallee does a much better job than Penn did in finding a sympathetic, yet still-flawed character as the focus. Wild follows Cheryl Strayed, portrayed here by Reese Witherspoon, as she attempts a lonesome thousand-mile trek of the Pacific Crest Trail. The hurdles she faces usually aren’t actually all that treacherous. She brings the wrong cooking fuel and she gets bruised and blistered from a too-big backpack and too-small boots. Actual physical threats more often than not turn out to be false alarms, though these false alarms still make for some very tense, memorable moments.
But the real brilliance of the story is that why Cheryl has ended up taking this journey in the first place is just as important as how she gets through it. As such, the film moves between the present and Cheryl’s past, chronicling her life from being a little girl to her absolute rock bottom. Vallee, who directed last year’s excellent Dallas Buyers Club, once again displays spectacular directorial skills in how seamless these flashbacks are integrated, and I was especially impressed by how the film’s soundtrack was utilized to ease audiences in and out of Cheryl’s memories.
We learn a lot about Cheryl through this non-linear structure. She’s been through so much that, even if this hike never seems like the most rationale way of dealing with her problems, it’s easy to see how she came to the decision. Compare this to Into The Wild’s so-called ‘tragic’ subject Christoper McCandless. I can’t ultimately judge either of these real-life people, but I can certainly judge the characters portrayed onscreen. The movie version of McCandless was a selfish, idealistic, angsty kid who leaves his family to worry about him constantly, is unprepared for his journey, and dies as a result. The movie version of Strayed, on the other hand, won my sympathy, both because we’re literally shown her past and because bad things actually happened to her.
Despite this, Vallee makes the smart decision of being impartial towards her. There’s no way to avoid portraying some of her actions prior to the hike as flawed, and she spends most of her hike thinking about the numerous regrets she’s had over the course of her life (via voiceover narration). In other words, she judges herself in the film, but the film never judges her. Again, we can compare this to Into The Wild, where McCandless, despite the emotional harm he inflicts on his family and the fatal harm he ultimately inflicts on himself, is heroicized by Penn throughout. That’s what makes Wild a true character study and Into The Wild a mere glorification piece (of an arguably unwarranted figure).
Wait, this is a review of Wild, right? Or am I just roasting Into The Wild now? I can’t help myself sometimes.
In any case, Wild displays the same visual strengths that Vallee and his cinematographer Yves Belanger made quite apparent with Dallas Buyers Club. Specifically, they are able to make gritty, dirty locales into something vibrant and detailed. Even the wilderness Cheryl crosses is often barren but elevated by the intricate camerawork. As I briefly mentioned, the decade-spanning music choices also help ground the film in reality while simultaneously emphasizing the diversity and spontaneity of human memory.
I have yet to read any reviews for this movie, but I would assume many words are devoted to Witherspoon’s acting, which has already gotten her some award nominations. Frankly, I don’t get what all the buzz is about. Witherspoon works for the role, but she handles both the physical and emotional aspects no better than, say, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, and she isn’t winning any awards for those movies. Anyone who describes Witherspoon’s performance as ‘raw’ wouldn’t exactly be wrong, as she still does do a commendable job displaying with the material. But I think that has more to do with the makeup artists applying scrapes and burns to her body than it does to her actual execution of the role.
Most distracting to me was how she (or maybe screenwriter Nick Hornby, or perhaps even the real-life Strayed) would fall back on a default snarkiness, even in times of great distress. It allows for a good amount of comedic relief, but to me it really undercut the horrifying things that I could only imagine must have been going on in Strayed’s mind while she went through everything depicted in the film. Compared to performances like James Franco in 127 Hours, there seems to be a necessary urgency that Witherspoon misses. If anything, the more impressive performance in this movie comes from Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother.
Additionally, I was disappointed that the film ends on a note of extreme cheese. This isn’t necessarily any one person’s fault. Surely, the novel by Strayed has something profound to say about life. There’s no way she could go through what she goes through without some good old perspective. But I can’t help but feel that the film tries to squeeze too much ‘what we can learn’ into the very, very back of the film. Yet, I walked away with not much more than a simple ‘live in the moment’ message I could have gotten from hundreds of other movies.
So clearly this type of movie isn’t my thing, but if you like Into the Wild, there’s no reason you wouldn’t enjoy this one as well. I would argue that Wild has a much more worthy story and is ultimately a much better movie, even if I found it still lacking in many important areas. Directing isn’t one of them, though; Jean-Marc Vallee continues to cement himself as a brilliant chronicler of interesting, obscure real-life characters. If nothing else, I appreciate this movie more as a showcase for his talents and it certainly succeeded in getting me excited for what project he takes on next.
Score: 3 out of 5