Wild (*****) is a beautiful loser

Wild

Wild – 2014

Director Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay Nick Hornby based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Starring  Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, Cliff DeYoung

Among the things I love: Laura Dern, Nick Hornby and road movies. I also love Diane Ladd, but she’s not in this film.

Among the things I like: Reese Witherspoon, stories of humble self-discovery and humans connecting with nature.

Among the things I loathe: Eat Pray Love, Oprah and her book of the month club.

When I hear think of the movie Searching for Debra Winger, I can’t help but conjure up the image of Reese Witherspoon. Both were beauties in their younger days. Both had work opportunities become less frequent with the passing of their youth. I am not sure that things for Winger ever became as desperate as Rosanna Arquette’s 2004 documentary suggests, but there is a resounding truth that Hollywood is more welcoming of old dudes like Harrison Ford making Indiana Jones 5 than they are of people like Julia Roberts making Pretty Woman 2. Some of the smarter people take control of their lives through a variety of means. For actresses like Salma Hayek, Drew Barrymore, Jodie Foster and Witherspoon, producing and acting has become an avenue for new material in a manner that allows them to age gracefully and with all the beauty they have inside and out.

Witherspoon started out with Legally Blonde 2, sequel to her biggest hit and the perfect launching pad. She’s produced around a half dozen projects since then, with some fantastic success. Wild sees her taking control of material suited best for someone willing to take a chance on her career and it’s success will hopefully lead to similar material in the coming years.

Wild is, in essence, the diametric opposite of Eat Pray Love. While the latter concentrates on the me part of life, it is essentially a movie about a selfish person using a book bonus to leave one relationship and take a big vacation. It’s cloying selfishness mocks the real journeys that people need to take sometimes in their own lives to readjust and realize their own (lack of) importance to the whole scheme of things. Eat Pray Love‘s Gilbert shows us that a jack ass can speak metaphysically, searching for meaning through 10 cent words and an unlimited supply of financing out of a New York publishing house.

Cheryl Strayed does some real soul searching on a shoe string budget, writes truthfully on her own role in her life’s travails and endures the journey on her feet with no fanfare. In fact, Strayed wrote about this journey over 15 years later and approaches it with even more realism, less romanticism and her heart in a completely honest place.

That Oprah picked both books for her Book of the Month club shows either that she is utterly clueless as to the identity of truly great prose or the producers threw a check her way ahead of time. Either way, I am glad that both books were published. At least this way I got to see one great film.

Witherspoon is Cheryl Strayed. She is on a walk up the Pacific Crest Trail, starting in the Mojave Desert and finishing at the Bridge of Gods at the Washington/Oregon border. Strayed is not her original name. It is one she picked out when she got divorced, representing her role in the parting. Through flash backs the picture is doled out in bits and pieces. In other films this might be a gimmick. In the hands of Hornby, Vallée and Witherspoon, this is a deliberate pattern of thought processes designed at getting to the root of what’s really wrong with her.

Paul: [on phone] I’m sorry that you have to walk 1000 miles just to…
Cheryl: Finish that sentence. Why do I have to walk 1000 miles?
[pause]

But her ex-husband Paul can’t finish that sentence for her. Cheryl has to figure that one out for herself. The next hour and 45 minutes we get to figure that one out right along side of her. The journey is beyond hard, as we get to see Strayed (Witherspoon truly at her best) ambling along in a tired trance with a backpack (nicknamed Monster by fellow travelers) that is literally bigger than she. Watching her maneuver from the ground to her feet with the pack on her back is sheer agony. She gets there, eventually. Just like the rest of the story.

The flashbacks include many moments shared with her mother, Bobbi (Dern, acting her ass off) who is a seeming lightweight compared to how young Cheryl sees herself. That I see a lot of my relationship with my own mother strikes an important chord. We all think we have this living thing down pat when we consider our parents reading choices compared to our loftier selections. That we don’t consider other factors in their lives is a telling sign that our own viewpoint might be severely limited by our relative lack of experience compared to theirs. This is a point excellently and unflinchingly handled.

In the present we see a variety of people along the path. Some she is afraid of, some she is intrigued by. She doesn’t stretch real hard to find any cosmic connections. There is no time for that. She is centered on her own path to the point where she is stripped down to what it takes to survive.

One of the best scenes in the film is something we must take a face value. She is at Kennedy Meadows, California, when she meets Ed (DeYoung). Ed, is not taking the hike himself. He is just camping there because all of the people on their individual journeys is an inspiration to him. Not that he could ever undertake the journey himself. He does give Cheryl some fine advice though, in asking her to go through her very large bag and ask herself what she really has use for. Whatever she doesn’t need, she should place in the donation bin. The books, though, she should use for burning. The books won’t be harmed, he said. Cheryl isn’t a Nazi, she’s just being practical. If Gibson had tread the same ground, it would have been accompanied by some absolute metaphysical b.s. that no one needs to hear. We know the general message of take what you need: leave the rest. Not everything has to be “Sanskrit read to a pony.”

Cheryl’s story is great because it is hers. There are messages in there for us, but this is the path she takes to identify the reason she had to walk 1000 miles. There are several songs shared along the way, but the best part about them is that they are not played once and moved on, several come back in the monotony of her daily grind. Mostly we hear Cheryl sing them, sometimes they vibe off into the original being played over the soundtrack, but there is not one single training montage moment. She still has a ridiculous amount of stepping to do.

The one we hear most, though, is El Condor Pasa (If I Could). There is a resonance to this song in how it connects Cheryl to her mother. It is so deftly handled, like a mantra almost, that keeps the bond strong as she works out the things that she needs to in order to move forward with life.

Wild is what people should ascribe to in a story. Cheryl is identifiable specifically because she has the tragic flaws that we all have. She does nothing amazing on this trip. There are no moments that silver tape can’t overcome. That she takes every damn step and goes through a mind numbing re-evaluation of her life. The trip brings inspiration for those of us that can’t afford the luxury to jet set from Italy to India to where the hell ever else. Cheryl wasted a couple of lives before she took the challenge. She did it before she accepted the responsibility for other lives.

Vallée has made a vast improvement over his good but not great film Dallas Buyer’s Club. Where the first film made took the warts out of the protagonist’s past and present to make him into a saint-like figure of AIDS research, this film leaves all of Strayed’s bad traits right there, and we benefit from them by seeing someone we can identify with who will not be curing cancer or any other disease. She’s just learning to live with what she’s done and who she is now. This is something we all could learn.

(*****)

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