Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wild: Movie Review

A simple and beautiful journey through the wilds of California and the mind.
Wild is an apt title for the film and Cheryl Strayed's memoirs that it is based on about her journey from depression through drug addiction to an actual physical 1,100-mile journey along the Pacific Coast Trail to find herself. The title applies to both Cheryl's wild past including drugs, alcohol, more drugs, and even more men, and the unforgiving wild terrain from the deserts of southern California to the snow-covered mountains of northern California and the hippies in Oregon. 2014

Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée

Screenplay by: Nick Hornby
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed

Starring: Reese Witherspoon

Director Jean-Marc Vallée appropriately chose a much more restrained approach to telling Cheryl's story. We start at the beginning of her physical journey, only amateurishly prepared for the daunting hike ahead of her. One phone call to her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and then once she can actually get her enormous pack on her back, and stand up, she's off. Starting in the Mojave desert in California, the camera stays pretty close to Cheryl, the landscape is identical ahead of her and behind her and not particularly inviting. Cheryl is also keeping everything very close to herself – physically and emotionally. She's scared of everything she encounters on the trail – rabbits, snakes and men.

She has very little protection, but that's because what she's running away from is all in her head. It's her memories of her past with a husband she emotionally abused, her own body that she physically abused and the throwing away of her own future because of the health of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Her memories come crashing in with quick flashbacks of her previous life. But the point of this journey is to get as far away from the woman she used to be and so she must soldier on.

Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" in WILD.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
There will always be things that frighten her on the way – foxes, insects and men. But after meeting other hikers, helpful strangers, she's more excited about what lies ahead, and by this point we're getting into the mountains of California. Gorgeous shots of forests, cliffs and valleys all around her. Reese Witherspoon's portrayal of Cheryl and how the film chose to tell her story added a lot of warmth to it. It was beautiful watching her hike, and the sudden appearance of strangers and curious animals would have us watching with interest not actual fear.

The screenplay is adapted by Nick Hornby, my favourite writer, who has mastered comedy of all styles in the face of realities or absurdities, but oddly there were very few moments of humour. The flashbacks certainly weren't light in nature, and while the trek became much lighter the farther she got, it didn't offer any of his usual humorous insights. Instead, the vocal parts of the film were filled with Strayed's philosophies borrowed from other writers.

Strayed has a tendency as coming across as insufferable – she understands literature in a way that nobody else does, she's a woman therefore the other hikers can't understand how difficult it is for her, and she's going to hike even though she's woefully under-prepared. But part of Witherspoon's excellent portrayal is that she brought Cheryl back down to Earth, her flashback scenes had a rawness to them which really captured how damaged she was, and then back to the present she had a humanity and humility that made her a much more interesting person.

The physical journey of Wild is just as interesting as the mental and emotional journey, but the latter had an odd structure to it. Once in Oregon, and nearing her destination, her state of mind wasn't as clear as it should have been. The ending didn't feel much like an ending to me, but maybe that's just because I wanted to watch more of her journey. It did unfold in a simple and beautiful manner.

Similar Titles:

Dallas Buyers Club (2013) - A character with conflicting ideals provides a drama with charm and humour.

Big Eyes (2014) - Going against the grain, “Big Eyes” finds success in the intersection between honest emotion and deceitful comedy.

A Long Way Down (2014) - A new direction can seem uneven, but the original wit, whimsy, humour and insight is intact.