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WILD (2014) review

December 26, 2014

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written by: Nick Hornby
produced by: Bruna Papandra, Bill Pohlad and Reese Witherspoon
directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use and language)
runtime: 115 min.
U.S. release date: December 05, 2014 (limited) and December 19, 2014 (wide)

 

By the time the Chicago International Film Festival came around this past October, I was officially sick of hearing about the Oscar buzz surrounding Reese Witherspoon. I can’t explain why. I have nothing against her. It’s just that there was so much talk about her latest film “Wild”, touted as a woman vs. nature film, that I started to feign interest. Maybe it’s because I felt like this territory was already covered in films like “Into the Wild” and “127 Hours”. Little did I know that, like those two great films, “Wild” is based on the real life experiences of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked more than a thousand miles by herself in 1991, from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington State, that lasted three months. Sometimes I should just shut up and give a film a chance, because this surprisingly personal film caught me off guard.

Initially I thought Cheryl Strayed was kind of a dingbat. Primarily due to the way in which we meet her as “Wild” opens. She’s seen atop a mountain high above the tree tops, overlooking a vast wilderness which stretches to the horizon. She grunts, moans and grimaces as she attempts to rip off a bloody toenail. Clearly she’s been walking a long long time and in a fit of frustration she howls at the sky and throws her hiking boot down the side of the mountain. Based on that opening scene, I surmised that this is a woman who didn’t plan very well and was in over her head out in the wild. I was rash in my initial summation of Cheryl Strayed.

 

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Sure, she’s not an experienced hiker and she may not have taken certain things into consideration before embarking on this trek, but as the film peels away at Cheryl’s sweaty skin, we come to realize that she strongly resembles one or two people we know in life, maybe even ourselves. Unless, you’re that person who has it all together. In that case, you’re a liar.

From there, director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) take us into the mind of this exasperated woman, intercutting flashes of memories at high-speed and sending us back to where Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, in a powerful, committed performance) began her trip. Although starting a film at the end (or in this case, the middle) is a pretty common approach, I found myself surprised at how fast I became intrigued and fascinated by this woman. I genuinely wanted to know how he wound about angry and afraid and….resilient on that mountaintop.

For that, I give credit to award-winning screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity” and “About a Boy”) takes us into the mind of this exasperated young woman. Not many biopic screenplays do that. In fact, that’s why so many moviegoers have grown weary of the genre. Far too often, they’re predictable and full of clichés. It’s hard to get too upset about since these films are based on true stories, but when they all run through the same formula it’s kind of hard for these real-life tales to resonant they way they intend to.

 

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Not so with “Wild”, which has us experience the random thoughts and memories of Cheryl naturally, the way any of us would if our mind was wandering a solitary trail. Both Hornby and Vallée trust us enough to put the pieces together as we’re shown fragments of sex, drugs and self-destruct, that led to the separation from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski, of HBO’s “The Newsroom”) of seven years. It may be obvious Cheryl is hiking away from her past, to test herself – to try or feel something new or different – but her journey is interwoven with flashbacks, pulling us in further and further, in a very affective manner. The best part, nothing we’re shown feels forced and heavy-handed. Instead, it’s all quite real and, well, heavy.

As she makes her way north through challenging terrain with her insanely oversized backpack, we continue to learn more about Cheryl’s past and witness her mishaps in the present. We discover that her mother, Bobbi (a fantastic Laura Dern), was her world up until the day she died of lung cancer at age 45. Bobbi fled an abusive relationship and provided a poor but happy life for Cheryl and her little brother, Leif (Keene McRae). While her feet become fatigued and her back bruised and sore, painful memories take shape as well. We see that her love and appreciation for her mother didn’t fully realize until she became sick and more vividly once she died.

 

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Prior to those events, we see through select memories, a college-aged feminist Cheryl, embarrassed that her mother is taking classes at the same time she is. Ridiculing Bobby for happily humming Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pass/If I Could” in their kitchen, when Cheryl can’t possibly fathom what her mother has to be so joyful, considering how miserable she perceives their lives to be. As that song entered her consciousness while hiking, she is naturally flooded with memories of her mother, like we all do when we hear a song or watch a movie that a deceased loved one enjoyed. This is one of many ways that “Wild” feels natural and true, moreso than any other recent true story (and there’s been a handful of them this year) brought to the big screen.

There are moments when “Wild” almost ventures into stereotypical characterization. They occur when Cheryl comes across male hikers, even then the screenplay veers into a direction we don’t expect. Early on when a man provides her a home-cooked meal and days later when she meets two good ol boys hunting in the swampy woods, we think something bad is going to happen because that’s what we’re used to – maybe also because that’s what Cheryl is used to as well. There are many reasons why these moments exceed our expectations, but it’s mainly because the encounters Cheryl experienced do not fall into the preconceived notions that have developed over years of move watching.

 

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The more I think about “Wild” the more impressed I am with it. (The more I also find myself pondering how much Snapple and REI received – I kid – not really). Hornby’s screenplay is full of honesty and grace and Vallée’s direction is restrained and knowing enough to allow our protagonist to lead the way (both to her haunted past and her uncertain future), with enough silent moments included for Witherspoon to lose herself in Cheryl Strayed. It’s rare to see a smart-yet-flawed woman portrayed as an independent sexual being and not an idiot or a whore.

The unfair judgements I had toward Cheryl at the start of the movie, dissipated by the end of the film. I was humbled by that; finding myself wanting to raise a glass of wine to her as she embarks on her next journey of reintegration into her unknown future.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

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