' Cinema Romantico: Wild

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Wild

Staring down the barrel of a three month, eleven-hundred mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) endeavors to simply strap on her elephantine backpack, sprawled out on the floor with its full weight pinning her down. It is, of course, a moment of palpable physicality in which director Jean-Marc Vallée fluently communicates the arduousness of his character's almost reckless desire to test her mettle. It is also, however, a 210D Nylon metaphor for Cheryl's whole existence, one woman's struggle to get out from under the weight of all the crap that is her life. If it's a blunt metaphor, it's a no less apt one, and blunt metaphors are permissible in films where the protagonist is made to rip off her own toenail. She is going into the wild, yes, but more than that she is going into the wild as a means to go mentally into her past.


Adapted by author Nick Hornby, "Wild" communicates its main character's adventure not as a linear journey stretching from the unbearable heat of the Mojave to the wintry peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but as one hopping back and forth in time in Cheryl's life. The flashbacks paint a portrait of a woman who has, more or less, lived two lives already by the age of 26, one as a Tracy Flick-ish wunderkind motivated by a mother (Laura Dern, a winning performance that believably conjures a loving free-spirit) who has fled an abusive husband to make a new life and one as a Vanessa Lutz-ish bad girl driven to the edge of self-destruction when her mother passes away from cancer. Ruining her marriage to a man who clearly still loves her but also knows it's in his best interest to get distance, her life devolved into the requisite bacchanal of drugs, booze and sex.

Admittedly these present/past episodes seem a bit too tidy in their construction to truly invoke the film's title. "There's no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what," Cheryl sermonizes in voiceover even though the film spends its entire two hours illustrating exactly what leads to what, what makes one thing happen and not another. If, say, she hitches a ride then the guy giving her a ride will turn on the car radio and if he turns on the car radio then it will immediately cue up a song that immediately cues up a flashback to some long-ago incident that allows for another blatant filling in of another one of our protagonist's blanks.

Yet simultaneously these repeated intrusions of what brought her to the trailhead fit seamlessly by evoking how anyone's most notable companion on a solo quest is him or herself and when left in the company of yourself for so long you can't help but pour over every celebration, failure or regret. It's funny, isn't it, how journeys into the ostensible unknown dredge up things we know too damn well.


If the film is noticeably light on hair-raising action-adventure exploits despite its material, it is hefty on the physical vulnerability Cheryl is forced to experience in a generally unaccompanied environment. Otherwise good-hearted male hikers she encounters along the way jocularly anoint her the "Queen of the PCT" because of the many helping hands she receives, from other backpackers, park rangers, etc. They say it good-heartedly but that doesn’t fail to mask the underlying obliviousness. They make a point to explain they receive no such generosity while failing to grasp that a lone woman in the wilderness means every encounter with the opposite sex comes cloaked in uneasiness and potential full-on fear. That nothing happens can perhaps be attributed to her gradually mounting emotional fortitude, or her to pure luck, but the omnipresent idea of menace nevertheless remains palpable.

Certainly this raises the notion of Cheryl's non-recreational walk as one of self-flagellation as much as spiritual rejuvenation. When she loses her hiking boots and ducts tapes sandals to her feet and presses forward there is a discernible attitude of I Deserve This. "Fuck you, bitch!" she screams at her departed footwear, even though she's really yelling it at herself. As an actress, Reese Witherspoon is generally viewed as one of the queens of the rom com (which makes the label "Queen of the PCT" all the more acerbic), a ferocious ball of perky energy. Here she unplugs, deftly playing someone who is exhausted, drained of all power, and even before she sets off on her odyssey. She simply seems tired – tired of walking this trail, tired of living this life, tired of standing in these shoes. This is decidedly at odds with the sort of character that usually inhabits these kinds of Jack London adventurer tales. There is a moment when a fellow hiker she briefly meets references training and the look Witherspoon lets play on her face reveals that "training" for her was not merely an afterthought but never thought about.

Cheryl Strayed is woefully ill-prepared, out of her element, resistant to myth-making. And no matter how many times she turns to the collected works of Emily Dickinson for inspiration, she is not in the throes of a quest to "find herself" but to shake free of who she is. She, to quote Bruce Springsteen who himself is momentarily referenced in the film, walks a thousand miles to slip her skin.

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