Wild

January 24, 2015
Reese Witherspoon in 'Wild' (2014)
Reese Witherspoon in 'Wild' (2014)

American Sniper shows us a man who sees it as his moral duty to defend what is good, even if it means making vast personal sacrifices on behalf of his colleagues and his country. Wild is the story of a woman who seeks to find herself after screwing up her life big time. Chris Kyle goes to Iraq to fight insurgents, Cheryl Strayed goes on a long, solitary walk up the west coast of America.

If Strayed’s project seems slightly self-indulgent in comparison, I’d like to imagine that a great filmmaker could turn any story into something profound and engaging. Jean-Marc Vallée has shown, in films as diverse as The Young Victoria (2009), Café de Flore (2011) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013), that he is an exceptionally talented director, but Wild has defeated him.

Reese Witherspoon gives a whole-hearted performance in the lead role but also fails to ignite a film that proceeds – literally – at a walking pace. Although Strayed’s book may have been inspirational to readers, it doesn’t translate into a dazzling piece of cinema. A woman is walking in a line, 1,100 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican desert to the forests of Canada, and will eventually get to the end. That’s basically the plot. On the way she encounters humans and animals, both friendly and unfriendly, and has numerous flashbacks to the life she has left behind.

Wild is Tracks without camels. The difference is that Robyn Davidson wasn’t fleeing a debauched existence full of drugs and bad sex when she decided to go find herself in the desert. It was a stubborn quest by a young woman who couldn’t say for sure why she was putting herself through such an ordeal. This uncertainty is one of the strengths of her story, because we don’t need an author to over-analyse her own motives.

There is no ambiguity about Strayed’s journey, which is a pilgrimage with quasi-religious overtones – a penance that must be paid to annul the sins of the past. The problems begin when Strayed loses her daffy but good-hearted mother, Bobbi, played with great charm by Laura Dern. It’s a curiosity that Witherspoon, at age 38, plays a woman of 26, while Dern, at 47, is supposed to be her mum.

Stricken by grief and guilt, with self-esteem falling through the floor, Strayed begins cheating on her devoted husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Soon she is on a downward spiral that involves rough sex in alleyways and heroin abuse.

After almost dying of an overdose she begins to suspect there is a problem, but the magnitude of the disaster requires an equally stupendous rescue effort. Her plan reads: “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.”

Part of the appeal of the book must have been Strayed’s naivety when it came to preparing for the trip. We find right away that she is no athlete, only an average person with a determination that seems weirdly at odds with her previous debauchery. She packs a monumental swag she can barely carry, gets loose toenails and blisters from her hiking boots, and suffers a thousand other indignities, learning the hard way.

The real star of the film may be the landscape, which is always watchable even when the story has gone into a holding pattern. Although Strayed is continually threatening to give up, we know she never will. It gets a bit tiresome as she takes another look at her map, and viewers sneak a peek at their watches. Cue in that mountain scenery.

Wild
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by Nick Hornby & Cheryl Strayed, after a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann
USA, rated MA15+, 115 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 24th January, 2015.