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“God is a ruthless bitch.”—Cheryl Strayed
Of all the comments Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) leaves in the register books that mark her journey along California’s Pacific Crest Trail, this is the only original one. The rest are apt but ever-so-slightly twee remarks that span pretty much everyone from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell. Strayed’s own comment is a fist-pump moment in Wild. It’s not in the least about who or what or even if you think God is: it’s the voice of a gutsy 26-year-old protagonist finally owning her anger and working through it. Wild gifts us a series of windows into Strayed’s background—her mother’s death, failed marriage, drug use—to show the motivation behind her impulsive trip to the Trail, but what’s best about the film is how it avoids becoming a complete cheesefest to instead say something pretty powerful.
The wilderness journey isn’t necessarily any less of a trope than the therapy on the couch, right? Strayed’s shtick is that she’s a woman doing this alone; that she’s walking around 1800 kilometres, and that she has no idea what the hell she’s doing. Any of these elements could’ve turned her into a joke—but director Jean-Marc Vallée has more sense. While Wild contains a few laughable moments, he doesn’t seem particularly interested in manipulating the audience to feel, well, anything specific. It lends a nice rawness. On one side, the woman and her journey; on the other, a plethora of different audience experiences responding as they see fit. The whole stripped-back thing is something I really enjoy, particularly in a narrative that ran the risk of becoming too Hornby-esque at the hands of its screenwriter.
The director’s hand is probably most evident in the way he weaves Strayed’s memories in and out of her walk. A lot of this traces the narrative structure of the real Strayed’s memoir, on which the film is based. The memories are fragments that shouldn’t really work, and definitely don’t chronologically. The way Vallée evokes them, though, is exquisite: how they insert themselves at unwelcome moments and with unwanted consequences, the way they play with touch and smell as well as the visual. It’s a lovely way to get to know a character, and the sensory tactic really brings us closer to the film.
This approach is all part of a strange kind of Hollywood-cum-arthouse style that it seems Vallée’s been trying to cultivate: we remember Dallas Buyers’ Club, yeah? Let’s be honest, though—Wild looked terrible. The trailer left me wincing. I just watched it, and grimaced again. Have a little faith though, friends. Aside from one cringeworthy CGI fox that was meant to be oh-so-symbolic but instead made me want to crawl under my seat every time it emerged, the film is not so Hollywood. It’s subdued, but nonetheless captivating. Wild is homespun, gritty, rough, and every other adjective you’d expect from a film with that name. It runs a whole gamut of emotion, and takes a really good shot at mimicking a working through process, instead of neatly packaging grief.
I doubt that Reese actually ripped her toenail off for the role, and she strangely enough managed to shave her legs throughout “three months on the trail”, but she brings a little something that’s not Elle Woods. Laura Dern steals the show, and I want Bobbi to be my mother (except that she died). Wild presents us with a bunch of male characters who range from just plain nice to harmless misogynist to really genuinely threatening. Perhaps the most important thing this film brings us, though, is a female protagonist who is “strong”, but not an action hero, a Marvel character, or Scarlett Johansson. We’re used to defining females in terms of their interactions with others, and it’s nice to see Strayed undergo a transformation that only essentially involves herself, the landscape, and a fuckload of sheer grit. I’mma go climb a mountain.