- Written by
- Nick Hornby
- Directed by
- Jean-Marc Vallée
- Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Gaby Hoffman
Easily – and already – dismissed as an Eat Pray Love/Into the Wild spiritual go-girl odyssey, Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild is actually an unashamedly inspirational and suggestively impressionistic interior travelogue, a story of one woman's trek into the mystic with more literal and figurative baggage than any pilgrim can hope to carry.
Unpacking will be the secret to Cheryl Strayed's successful 1,770-kilometre trudge of the Pacific Crest Trail, and that's the job Vallée's insinuatingly engrossing adaptation of Strayed's 2012 memoir sets for itself: the lightening of a burdened woman's present through a purgative confrontation with her past, set to a shredded audio-visual collage of pop music, flashbacks, jolts of physical pain and bolts of a bright beyond. It should be as twee as a Jack Johnson jingle-pop song for sparkling water, but it isn't: Somehow, Wild grows in gravitas as it sheds Cheryl's past.
Would that we all could follow in Cheryl Strayed's footsteps and decide to drop out of the big grind long enough to walk our way to enlightenment (I'd love to, but unpaid bills would dog my every step), and it's to Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby's considerable credit that they get to the metaphorical meat of the matter almost as soon as Cheryl hits the PCT. Although weighed down miserably by such real-world matters as a failed marriage, memories of Laura Dern's irrepressibly happy mom figure, a gritty flirtation with heroin-spiked promiscuity and a backpack the size of a Mini Cooper, Cheryl's journey is promptly established as an internal and arguably universal affair.
Although we may not share Cheryl's particular psychic (or economic, cultural or racial) circumstances, we can all apprehend the roles regret, guilt and unresolved self-doubt can play in blocking the trail ahead. More acutely, we can also get the way memory intrudes on and infiltrates our experience of the present, and it's in this process that Vallée's movie finds its own mountain-goat-sure footing. Her head fluttering with snippets of songs – Simon and Garfunkel, the Andrea True Connection, Leonard Cohen, Portishead – echoes of spoken words and ghostly apparitions of lost loved ones, Cheryl functions as a kind of first-person transmitting probe of her inner life, her consciousness a stream that shifts from torrent to trickle on a thought.
Certainly, there are real enough encounters on this post-feminist, self-helping Yellow Brick Road, and most of them remind us of how dangerous those woods remain for women who walk them alone: There are men who appear dangerous but aren't, men who seem helpful but menacingly so, men who act every bit as badly as they look, and snakes who become caterpillars when caught by flashlight. But there are also moments of uncluttered hope and encouragement, like a freely offered pair of new boots, a young boy who sings a verse of Red River Valley (that old John Ford standard), and a piece of licorice pulled from a trucker's glove compartment.
An inevitable point of comparison to Sean Penn's Into the Wild, another true-story-based account of a dropout odyssey into the American wilderness, Wild is as dreamily internalized as Penn's movie was hermetically externalized, but then the difference between the latter's Chris McCandless and the former's Cheryl Strayed is also the difference between someone who lived to tell the tale and someone who didn't. It takes a survivor to make a metaphor. In Penn's movie, the wilderness swallows up a guy hopelessly ill-equipped to distinguish his fantasy of the wild life from the real thing, a dead end, while in Vallée's, nature functions as the ultimate comeback trail.
Although a no-brainer as a showcase one-woman star vehicle (in a glib way, it's like Gravity in hiking boots), the remarkable thing about Wild is that it's so much more than a Reese Witherspoon Oscar-baiter. (Even more so, that is, than Vallée's Dallas Buyers Club was the amply awarded capper of the McConnaissance.) It's a movie in which you can feel the spirit of the material infusing the filmmaker both as an artist and as a human being, and what results is that thing that occurs when even the simplest of songs sends sparks to the soul.