Friday, December 19, 2014

Wild Movie Review

There are journeys where it’s the destination that matters. Then there are others where it’s the journey itself that defines the story and the character taking it. The latter kind is what makes for better films, in my opinion. In the new film Wild, a young woman hikes the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave desert in southern California to the Oregon-Washington border – a 1,100-mile walk. Along the way she recalls moments from her past that brought her to the decision to make this trek.

Wild was adapted by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. Strayed did this hike in 1995 when she was twenty-seven years old and recently divorced after throwing her life into upheaval following her  mother’s death. The way Hornby’s screenplay tells it, her mother was her rock and “the love of [her] life.” After she died, Cheryl turned into the girl who couldn’t say no to anything – be it heroin or sex with whatever man came looking for it.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl as tough, determined, and terribly vulnerable. She’s smart, but not precocious and irritating like her Tracy Flick in Election. There’s more in common here with the sister she played in Pleasantville, the girl who slept around the fictional TV town and stirred things up. “Cheryl is a little like that but for different reasons. There’s a mental toughness that Witherspoon allows her to have so that, against Cheryl’s better judgment, she can get into a truck and go home with a man she just met. Although she knows the man is probably harmless, she doesn’t ever forget that she’s one of the only women on that trail. To encounter another woman is refreshing. To encounter strange men can be treacherous.

We’re in the midst of an interesting period of American filmmaking that has foreign directors helming distinctly American-themed movies and putting touches on them that make them just slightly different and in most cases more interesting than typical American fare. I’m thinking of directors like Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Denis Villeneuve, and Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed Wild. As he did with last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, he gives period detail without pushing it too hard. His 1980s and 1990s period scenes are decidedly not of the present day, but they feel so lived in and authentic. The styles aren’t flashy and obvious period examples, but the regular humdrum clothes and hair that people wore.

Wild’s narrative momentum depends almost entirely on the details of Cheryl’s past being illuminated. These are things like how and why her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) ended; why her mother (played with beautiful energy and love by Laura Dern) was on her own raising two small kids; and most critically – why she feels this compulsion to complete this trek even at the cost of bloody toenails and dehydration. Vallée directs the flashbacks (and they make up about half the story) not as extended scenes that play as long dialogue sequences, but as memories come to us in half-remembered dreams; in waking snippets and flashes, often brought on through sense memory of a smell, pain, emotion, or visual cue. And they don’t come in order. Of course they don’t. We don’t remember events of our past chronologically. They happen when we are reminded to recall it and the memories serve to tell us who we are now.

That’s really Wild’s great lesson. It is a simply human tale. We are the only animals that can understand how the past informs our present. We are the only animals that can have regret. What Cheryl learns over the course of her journey and it’s a lesson reiterated in a flashback by her mother for why she doesn’t regret marrying an abusive alcoholic, is that everything she did before – the drugs, the cheating, the reckless behavior – have made her the person she is. And if you’re satisfied with who you are at this moment, then how can you possibly regret anything in your past that made you into that person? We are the sum total of our experiences. Sometimes we need a special journey to point that out to us. For those of you who have gone on a long journey trying to find out who you are, you’ll see something of yourself in Cheryl. For everyone else, you might just see that the journey is life itself.

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