I gave Dallas Buyers Club a positive review, a B+, but I think I overrated it. Director Jean-Marc Vallée lacks voice, style, and vision. Or at least he did in that movie, and Club showed he had little sense for movies and not much more for the craft of moviemaking. I noted in my review that he relies on cheap tricks and heavyweight performances—neither of which were deserving of the statues they brought home (Leo is sublime in Wolf, and he should have won). They move you, but only in the kind of way Alex was moved by the startling images in A Clockwork Orange. Dallas Buyers was manipulative to a fault, but, worse than that, nothing is more insulting to a film or to the people who made it than to call it ordinary, regular, or by the book. These are words that describe Dallas Buyers perfectly, poisonous remarks for a movie ironically all about finding an antidote. So as I walked into the screening for his new movie, Wild, it was with hesitance. To my surprise, I left smiling.
Adapted from best-selling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a book that documents a woman named Cheryl Strayed fleeing to the wildness in 1994 and the spiritual insights she gleaned along the way. Acting as an answer to the oft-asked what if, “I could run away,” grief and mistakes sent Cheryl on a daunting 1,100 mile hike that pushes her through dense forests and frozen mountains. Wild begins with the biographical center figure, played and produced by Reese Witherspoon, sitting atop a rocky hillside stoop with a broken big toe nail, in pain. It takes seconds before her toe becomes a mental mirror, and my feet squirmed imagining the pain. Vallée’s direction has improved. He’s learned to work with his actors instead of treating them like exhibitions that he directs from backstage. He frames them, and the beautiful world they travel through, with care. The episodic structure juxtaposes a tense encounter with a middle-aged cowboy with creep hunters Cheryl encounters later on; it’s a trick the story employs often, and by the film’s end, single scenes have multiple meanings they didn’t as you watched them. Vallée has found his talent as a storyteller, and it shows. Wild has flaws, but it’s largely an absorbing experience that, at times, cuts deep.
In an effort to advance women’s presence in film, Reese Witherspoon bought two properties she intended to star in: Wild and Gone Girl. Both came from books, and both have made a feminist splash with readers and critics alike. Powerful, autonomous women in popular storytelling are rare, and it’s impossible to watch either without seeing them as a call for change. Fincher didn’t want Witherspoon for Amazing Amy—a role that wisely went to Rosamund Pike—and it’s just as well, since she owns this part. Witherspoon isn’t the pretty in pink damsel we’ve seen her play in so many movies. She’s not afraid to curse, and, unlike most women in film, she doesn’t treat her flaws like secrets to be hidden with emotional makeup and to be distracted from with sex. For better and worse, she is who she is, and wrestles with an identity largely independent from men. Wild is one of the only movies this year to pass the Bechdel test, and it’s refreshing.
Witherspoon’s performance is a brave one. She rarely indulges hysterics, mostly playing Cheryl with a naturalism that brings her alive in a way that lets you feel like you know her. This is against type. Not for Witherspoon, but against roles that lend themselves to the type of Oscar bait we saw last year in Dallas Buyers Club. She’s mostly quiet, and we spend most of the film seeing her contend with the boring minutiae of hiking: building tents, eating cold mush versus warm mush, and walking (so much walking). Some have mistakenly said Cheryl is kept on the emotional periphery. They’re wrong. The film is just not on the volume they’re used to, and we come to know Witherspoon through whispers and not shouts. She’s not the only strong performance of the piece, and Cheryl’s single mom (Laura Dern) is an impossible light that brightly shines from a black hole of abuse. She’s imperfect and flawed, but passionately maternal. Dern makes it easy to see how she influenced her daughter’s life so profoundly.
What separates my reaction from other critics is that I don’t scrutinize Wild by how compelling the source material is (it’s not, and ultimately prevents the film from being one of the top of 2014). What makes Wild really work is how a not-so-unique story is told in an utterly unique way. Vallée, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and cinematographer Yves Bélanger treat Cheryl’s adventure in the great outdoors as an opportunity to craft a poem made of sights and sounds. The essence of her character is revealed by the way the sun sets or a bird chirps, making the line between Wild as a movie and Cheryl as a character a slight one. Most movies use artistic cinematography and creative sound mixing to help explain the characters, but few dare to let them take center stage. The natural elements of Cheryl’s surroundings are in symbiosis with her as a person, and how the film chooses to manifest that partnership is sometimes overwhelming. I felt connected to her, and since Vallée has convinced us she’s part of nature and nature is a part of her, I felt like I was connected to nature too. Wild’s so good it makes you sound like a Kush dealer that does too much of his own product. Put that on the poster.
My favorite thing about Wild, though, is the courageously expressionistic set of flashbacks. They’re interwoven naturally, like they’re a logical continuation of one scene and a rational precursor to the next. They are unannounced, frequent, and exactly like the way sight and sound was described above. The film’s structure embodies Cheryl. This is an area critics have also gotten wrong: they say some flashbacks seem pointless and have no relationship to the present. I don’t know about you, but random thoughts surging through my mind is exactly what it’s like to spend time alone. I’d be remiss not to mention Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror which mastered, and partially introduced, many of the techniques I just described. The Mirror endures as a stunning synthesis of film as art and film as story, and there are times Wild touches that same transcendence. Vallée hasn’t made a movie about a woman finding herself so much as the power of how a movie can find someone for us, making it a crime the film ends on a shoehorned, Hollywood note.
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