Monday 13 October 2014

Wild (2014) – Jean-Marc Vallée

There are plenty of travelogue, “into the wild” films out there with a “follow your dream” life-affirming message.  But few emphasise their point as much as the overblown Wild.

Starring Reese Witherspoon and based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this biographical drama opens to the sound of orgasmic relief as walking shoes are removed.  So too is a toenail.  It’s a mere indication of her pain.

From there we follow Cheryl on her path along the Pacific Crest Trail: 1,100 miles stretching from the Mexican border to Canada.  It’s a film of female empowerment and motivational poetry as she finds her inner-strength to keep pushing on, distrustful of every man she meets along the way.  “What kind of woman are you?” one male character asks: the film is her voyage of discovery.  To the backdrop of beautifully shot desert vistas, snowy wilderness and rain-soaked forests, we follow Cheryl on her path to enlightenment – a path that climaxes, suitably enough, at the Bridge of the Gods.

Through flashback we discover the reasons behind her journey – and they’re as stereotypical as they come.  “I’m the girl who says yes instead of no”, she dryly notes, her lifestyle wilder than her solo adventure.  Divorce?  Check.  Dying mother?  Check.  Abusive father?  Check. Heroin and sex addiction?  Check.  It’s a catalogue of bad lifestyle choices and unfortunate circumstances.  Her journey through the wilderness is an extreme method of redemption (full of glaring symbolism and spirit animals) to become the woman her mother wanted her to be and put her life on the right track – literally.

If the film’s message wasn’t heavy-handed enough, the soundtrack heightens the film to hyperbole with some terrible, clichéd choices.  Cheryl’s main earworm is Simon & Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound; Portishead’s Glory Box becomes a feminist anthem with its repeated line “give me a reason to be a woman”; More More More accompanies her heroin addiction; and First Aid Kit have covered R.E.M’s Walk Unafraid, for obvious reasons.  The lyric “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail” in Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa only serves to hammer home the film’s sentiment.  Cheryl even stumbles across a group of musicians mourning the death of Jerry Garcia, guitarist of the Grateful Dead who likewise suffered from heroin addiction.

The film is held together, though, by a gritty and formidable performance from Witherspoon.  It’s a convincing portrayal that combines humour with genuine emotion, though watching her hiking under tough conditions makes you wonder how much she’s really acting.  Still, it's an Oscar-worthy performance in a film that, like director Jean-Marc Vallée's previous film Dallas Buyers Club, is likely to scoop plenty of awards.

Wild may have a strong message at its heart, but this isn’t a cuddly sentimental film.  It’s a gripping watch and a great example of a strong female protagonist – if only it had a little more subtlety.


Watch: Wild screens at the London Film Festival, with general release in January.