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Non-Review Review: Wild

Wild is adapted from Wild: From Lost to Found, Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical account of her spiritual 1,100 mile trek across the California Pacific Trail. The bulk of the movie features Reese Witherspoon carrying a gigantic backpack stuffed with the essentials – described accurately, and perhaps affectionately, by some observers as a “monster.” This image adorns the posters and publicity materials, and feels strangely appropriate. Cheryl may have carried a gigantic back upon her back, but Reese Witherspoon carries the entire movie.

To be fair, Wild is not a bad film on its own merits. It is perfectly functional, if a little familiar in places. However, it is Reese Witherspoon’s performance that sets the film apart. It is a powerful and naked lead performance which counts among the best work in the actress’ career. The plot and character beats may feel like they have been inherited from countless other “find yourself in nature” films, it is Witherspoon who imbues Cheryl (and, by extension, the film) with a warm humanity.

Into the wild...

Into the wild…

Witherspoon a momentous performance, and Wild seems keenly aware of this. The film knows it has a gifted performer at its core giving one of the most memorable performances of the year. So Nick Hornby’s screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée are clever enough to stand back; the bulk of the film seems built around Witherspoon, a showcase for the performer. That is a lot of weight; even more than the hefty backpack that Strayed carried with her across California. Witherspoon is more than up to the task.

Wild is a movie that lives or dies on the strength of its lead performance. Luckily, Witherspoon is tremendous.

A long walk home...

A long walk home…

To be fair, this is the same approach that Jean-Marc Vallée took towards Dallas Buyers Club. That was a movie built around two phenomenal central performances from Matthew McConnaughey and Jared Leto, where it seemed like Vallée’s strength lay in staying out of the way. Everything is set-dressing for those big and memorable performances. This is a feature of the annual awards race, there are inevitably films that are built around particular aspects as opposed to a cohesive whole. Vallée is very conscious that Wild is focused on Witherspoon.

Wild isn’t a film that demands to be talked about in terms similar to the year’s other big movies built around towering central performances – Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel or Inherent Vice. This is not to disparage the look and feel of the film. As the title implies, it is an adventure through the California wilderness. It looks beautiful and scenic and striking. Vallée keeps the film tight as it jumps back and force through time, ensuring that the audience never get lost – even as Cheryl fears that she might be.

Taking a hike...

Taking a hike…

Similarly, Nick Hornby’s script is efficient. It is not unnecessarily cluttered or showy. It is clear and concise; it is a script that flows quite comfortably and organically. Hornby is very much in his comfort zone, writing about a lost and aimless protagonist; Wild is built around the effective metaphor of Cheryl Strayed trying to find her own sense of direction while hiking along a clearly-marked tourist trail. Hornby’s script never draws attention to itself, but it is wry when it needs to be wry and never lets itself get too heavy – even when trekking through Cheryl’s darker days.

There are points where Hornby’s script does feel a little clumsy, a little too smug and comfortable in itself. As one might expect from a movie adapted by Hornsby, the soundtrack is phenomenal – it draws from a wealth of sources. It hits quite heavily on the movie’s themes, as one expects from a soundtrack. There are moments of brilliance to be found, but also moments that undercut the film itself. The sequence where Cheryl decides to walk the California Pacific Trail plays over the “give me a reason” refrain from Portishead’s Glory Box; it is a little too on the nose.

Strayed off the beaten path...

Strayed off the beaten path…

Similarly, the dialogue occasionally feels a little too heavy-handed, as if afraid that the audience might miss the metaphors that come baked into the premise. “I’m going to walk my way back to the woman my mother thinks I was,” Cheryl reflects at one point, in what might be a one-line synopsis of her spiritual quest. At another point, a friendly observer suggests that Chery needs to lighten the load she is carrying. When she refuses to let some material go for sentimental reasons, he shrugs. “It’s your weight.”

Nevertheless, even with those minor problems, Hornby’s script for Wild is fascinating in how it sketches the character of Cheryl Strayed. At one point, in an impromptu interview with “the Hobo Times”, Cheryl describes herself as a feminist and a significant amount of Wild plays as a feminist narrative. This isn’t because Cheryl takes it upon herself, or because she lives an idealised existence; quite the opposite. Cheryl herself seems to concede that she has not made the best life-style choices, and that her world has become a disaster zone.

Packing it in...

Packing it in…

Instead, Wild acknowledges the repeated difficulties and fears and uncertainties that Cheryl faces on her journey across the California Pacific Trail by virtue of her gender. Sometimes it is as innocuous as a remark in poor taste; other times, the discomfort is more visceral and palpable. Wild never treats Cheryl Strayed’s gender as her defining characteristic, but it is not afraid to look at her journey through that lense; it confronts the audience with banality and casual nature of these threats and these attitudes; it is only occasionally in focus, but constantly looking.

However, Wild is anchored in its phenomenal central performance. Witherspoon is fantastic as Cheryl, breathing life into the character and stretching her out to a compelling and multi-faceted protagonist. There is an emotional rawness to her work here; a sense of candour and energy. It never feels like Witherspoon is holding anything back. As much as Wild hits all the expected plot beats for a story about a lead character finding themselves in nature, Witherspoon sells it. Wild seems to put most of its weight on Witherspoon, and she carries it like a pro.

Carrying it off...

Carrying it off…

Wild is a movie built around a central performance. However, it is a great performance.

2 Responses

  1. The book is to blame for all that heavy-handed, overwritten dialogue. Hornby does his best to eradicate a good chunk of it, but some remains nonetheless. Glad to hear you liked in spite of that, just as I did!

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