The Hammer and the Nail, by David Bax
It only makes sense that Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild bears a title so similar to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild from 2007. Both films are focused on characters who are difficult and headstrong (perhaps even unlikable, at least superficially). Both follow their protagonists on journeys through America’s unsettled terrain. And both are largely episodic, told in sections divided by the various people the leads encounter and how these individuals inform the hero’s growth. But while Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless remained frustratingly opaque, Wild lays out a vibrant and detailed inner life and history for its subject, Cheryl Strayed, that locates her as an intellectual, political and spiritual participant in our culture, even as she has removed herself from it.
We don’t know at first why Cheryl (played by producer Reese Witherspoon) has set out alone on a three month, thousand mile walk along the Pacific Crest Trail. She spends one night in a hotel near the trail’s southern starting point, make one last phone call to someone who seems to be an ex (The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski) and sets off the next morning with a pack that appears to be twice the size of Witherspoon’s diminutive frame. Actually, that’s not really the film’s beginning. The first scene, taking place at an undetermined point mid-journey, is a gruesome depiction of the physical toll walking for hundreds miles can take that will immediately make clear to the viewer that this is not Eat Pray Love.
As Cheryl makes her way from an all but arbitrary point near the Mexican border to an all but arbitrary point near the Canadian border, her backstory gets filled in with extensive flashbacks. Between the dangers and difficulties of the trail and the greatest hits of Strayed’s lowest moments, it’s a testament to Vallée, Witherspoon and screenwriter Nick Hornby (adapting the real Strayed’s memoir) that the film maintains a humanistic warmth and a gently sardonic sense of humor. It’s also nearly miraculous that Wild avoids navel-gazing, given that its source is an account of extended isolation written by the subject herself. But Strayed, or at least the film version (I haven’t read the book), has a knack for clear-eyed and levelheaded self-assessment. And Vallée often allows us to see her through the eyes of the others in her life and those she meets while hiking. The film’s only blind spot is that it doesn’t realize Strayed’s insistence on leaving quotes from famous authors at every trail checkpoint and co-crediting herself is pompous nonsense. Still, that’s exactly the manner of pomposity this character would exhibit and so it works nonetheless.
That we are so easily able to see Cheryl as others do is thanks, at least in part, to the deep bench of supporting players in the cast. Laura Dern plays Mom in flashbacks and, along with The Fault in Our Stars, it’s her second great mom turn this year. Who would have guessed David Lynch’s wild muse would turn out so naturally maternal? Gaby Hoffman shines similarly as best friend Aimee. Along with Obvious Child, that’s Hoffman’s second great best friend role this year, for those keeping count. The rest of the dramatis personae is mostly made up of the men Cheryl encounters on her way. W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Charles Baker, Brian Van Holt and a handful of other recognizable characters actors pass through.
There are so many men because, on the trail, Cheryl is a woman in a man’s world, as are all women. The men she meets help her or threaten her or flirt with her but each of them is first approached with caution no matter what their stated intention. Wild may be in many ways a personal story specific to Cheryl Strayed but I imagine it is also a universal female experience. Cheryl, in the course of her path, and other women, in the course of theirs, must negotiate daily with a world full of men who are potential threats or potential allies, Gamergaters or feminists, most of whom are indistinguishable from one another on sight. Vallée illustrates the perils by making use of Witherspoon’s tiny stature, often putting her entire body in the frame to allow maximum contrast with her surroundings and the men she meets. When Cheryl finally does encounter another woman on the trail, we’re as surprised and happy as she is.
Vallée had a surprise success just last year, when saved Dallas Buyers Club from its fate as a programmatic true-story weeper and turned it into a canny character piece. With Wild, he’s outdone himself. When people compare films to the work of Terrence Malick, they are usually talking about aesthetics. Wild doesn’t look like a Malick film but it is heartbreakingly specific and tender while simultaneously vast and contemplative in ways any Malick fan should recognize.