Dec 22, 2014
If only this movie was wilder. I have not read the book by Cheryl Strayed upon which this film by Jean-Marc Vallée is based, but it felt like reading the Cliff Notes. For a story about a woman who exiles herself into the wilderness to confront her grief, Wild feels detached and tame. It should be a tough existential movie, we should feel the harshness, the loneliness, the life or death risk of this woman, woefully underprepared in every way to go head to head with nature. Instead it's a collection of vignettes of her troubles with her ill-fitting boots, her ill-chosen equipment, and her memories, which is what got her there in the first place. Instead of being viscerally gripping, it's like leafing through a calendar with photos of a national park.
When movies resort to flashbacks to tell a story my heart tends to sink, because no matter how emotional, dramatic or shocking the memories, for the viewer, if it already happened, it is not as powerful an experience as if it is happening as we see it. Because of the way Wild is structured, (the screenplay is by the otherwise capable Nick Hornby) we only see in flashback what made Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) hit rock bottom, yet we don't get a sense of the extremity of her decision. We know it's crazy, we know it's hard, we can see it's dangerous, but we don't feel it. Vallée doesn't know how to wring any ideas or real feelings out if the story. For a far more harrowing, similar extreme camping mishegoss, Into The Wild, directed by Sean Penn, with Emile Hirsch, is much more powerful.
Why could we not follow Cheryl's normal life up to the events that disrupted it, the bad choices she made and then make her decision to walk 300 miles from the Mexican border to Oregon the turning point of the story? We would be in her very terrible shoes, having seen her lose everything she holds dear in life and make an extreme choice with no turning back. Instead, she walks and remembers, walks some more and remembers some more, and the more this rinse and repeat cycle happens, the more her memories feel devoid of power. They all have the same emotional value, there is no sense of escalation. Everything feels equally dull and by the numbers.
Because of this, I had little patience with the main reason for her spinning out of control, which is the loss of her mom (Laura Dern). I thought, get a grip, girl. You are not the only person who has ever lost her mom, and many who do don't decide to self-destruct with such alarming gusto. Had we seen their relationship through time, instead of by thought bubbles, we might be more moved by it.
Of course, watching a person walk for miles may not be anybody's idea of fun in the movies, but surely there are ways to make such a journey more interesting than her just cursing every step of the way and singing to herself. I have always liked Reese Witherspoon, but I think she is too slight, and not only physically, for this role.
Vallée made Dallas Buyers Club, which is also like a Hallmark Movie of The Week, but it gave Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the opportunity to tear into their roles with emotional ferocity, which won them their Oscars. But here Witherspoon seems to go through the motions. She seems to confuse getting naked for the camera with emotional transparency and bravery, and though she is engaging, she is not believable as a hardcore seeker of trouble. She is badly miscast, and she and Vallée waste the opportunity to really go to dark places. The character of Cheryl Strayed needs an actress who is rougher around the edges. Racking my brain to find a suitable replacement, I managed to come up was Amy Schumer, for what it's worth.
There was only one scene that even though heavy handed, approached the level of tension that the whole movie should have had. It is an encounter with two redneck hambones out of central casting, and yet there is palpable fear in the air. Unfortunately, Vallée has neither a visual style, any imagination, or any clue about how to tell this woman's story. What should feel like a nightmare, or at least an intense journey of discovery, feels like a travelogue. Wild is anything but wild.