Most of us, the voices in our heads – they never shut up. They move at the whims of their own perfect illogic, flitting from one unresolved thought to the next; then hijacked by a Top 40 song that rattles around uninvited; then startled back to a buried memory from childhood – and where did that come from? These voices, however familiar, are typically tricky to translate into a movie. Wild is the rare film to catch the interior life by its wriggling tail.
It begins with a woman alone on a mountain. She is Cheryl Strayed – a real-life writer, whose bestselling memoir about hiking solo 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail the movie is based on – and she’s played by Reese Witherspoon, an actress with a smile dazzling enough to earn her the silly sobriquet of “America’s Sweetheart” more than once in a 25-year-long career. Whether or not audiences still picture her in bas-relief as the chirpnik Elle Woods of Legally Blonde, Witherspoon – who also produced Wild – has consistently applied herself to rough-edged characters. Here, she’s a lethal fount of four-lettered rage who isn’t afraid to let that smile go slack, the features harden, the eyes go dead. Cheryl has seen a lot.
From that first mountaintop shot – which concludes with Cheryl howling “fuck you, bitch!” to the wilderness and the world at large – the film jogs back to the beginning of Cheryl’s hike. The jogging never stops. Screenwriter Nick Hornby charts a linear path up the trail from the Mexico border to the foggy evergreen of Oregon, but also a more impressionistic path as Cheryl sorts through her memories and deep grievances. In solitude, she has much to think about – an abusive childhood, a failed marriage, the early death of her beloved mother (Dern, radiant in a small but essential part), and the wash of palliative sex and drugs Cheryl lost herself in – but the filmmakers wisely avoid more commonly tread paths to flashback. (Think: prompt sentence, vague staring into space, then dissolve to a long-ago episode.)
I have my reservations about director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). There’s a tug-of-war there between commercial and arthouse aspirations, with neither side entirely satisfied. But his direction of Cheryl’s wandering mind is canny, working in concert with the script, the editing, the music cues, the sound design, and Witherspoon’s blunt expressiveness. That layering reaches its apex about an hour in, when the film linearly arrives back at the beginning mountaintop, with Cheryl at her bottommost. After a solid hour strumming the first instrumental bars of Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” the film finally unleashes the rest of the song (“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”) to score Cheryl battling angrily through the elements, intercut with her inner cacophony. An impromptu smile while on the trail cuts to a scene of her mother’s great love; a tree branch-lash to her forehead jolts back memories of degrading sex and heroin abuse (the song grows fuzzy when the drug’s melt kicks in). If the brain, at its most stressed, can feel like nothing more than a vomit of half-information and sensation, this montage is as near any film has gotten to transcribing that experience to screen.
There’s another something exceptional about the film, in the way it considers a woman in the world, exposed. The viewer may tense when Cheryl encounters a rattlesnake, but the whole body buckles when she encounters a man. It’s uncommon for a film not explicitly about sexual assault to acknowledge, let alone examine, what’s it like to be wary. Cheryl’s environs may be extreme, but her vulnerability – and her methods of defense – strike a universal chord: A lot of women not schlepping through hinterland still know what it’s like to invent a husband or a boyfriend for protection (“he’s just waiting in the car”) or to second-guess the safety of a walk home alone. Wild doesn’t presume that all men are predatory, but it does – soberly, viscerally – convey a woman’s anxiety at the possibility.
Wild lands some hard punches, but it can’t sustain the impact. Some of that lies in its inherited arc: Strayed found some peace – the whole point of the trek – but arriving-at-peace is less provocative than the struggle, at least in a movie. The piecemeal flashbacks grow repetitive – wait, didn’t we already go through that particular wringer? – and the last moments, the summing up of the thing, feel rushed through. In part it’s the limitation of the medium. A movie has to end somewhere, but the conversation in the brain – that never stops.
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