Follow the red fox
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria, C.R.A.Z.Y.) caught the attention of audiences in spectacular fashion last year with his triple Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyers Club. Awards season crept up quietly this year without heavy-hitters (like 2013’s Gravity, American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street)and the director has offered yet another inspirational-biopic that takes places between the 80s and 90s in Wild. Unfortunately, Wild lacks the powerhouse performances and charm of Dallas Buyers Club due to an obnoxious protagonist with more than a little perseverance and pluck. While Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon (Inherent Vice, Mud) gives an emotional, fearless performance leaving everything on film, it’s really the scenery courtesy of cinematographer Yves Bélanger (Dallas Buyers Club, Laurence Anyways) that makes the entire film worthwhile. In his newest film, Vallée prioritizes the camera aesthetic and non-sequential editing over characters and plot.
The non-linear narrative structure hinders fully understanding Witherspoon’s Cheryl as it may take viewers a moment to realize at what moment in her life the camera chooses to gaze. Then again, Cheryl never fully understands herself—that’s why she chose to walk 1,100 miles. Or is it? Is it someone else’s fault? Cheryl’s first phone conversation with her ex-husband seems to point the blame at him, but as one quickly finds out, he was only ever a part of the solution. He apologizes to her for her need to go on the journey, but she quickly lashes back as if to blame him. She screams and yells throughout Wild, angry at the early death of her mother and her subsequently-failed marriage. We’re supposed to root for her because she’s admitting fault/ feeling shameful and choosing to take a hike to find some clarity in her chaotic life, but by film's end (and trail's end) we're only treated to a tacked-on bit of wisdom to give the story an ending. She never describes exactly why she's hiking or what she discovered about herself and other people.
Witherspoon’s performance as Cheryl Strayed (author of the memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, on which the film bases itself) will certainly gather large amounts of awards attention love because of her strong, uncompromising performance as a broken, divorced woman taking the arduous next step in her life and literally walking away from the old. It’s simply hard to root for her as she tears down those characters closest to her—especially because they only exist to further her. In the name of grief, she perpetually cheated on a man who loved and supported her. She also brings her hard-working, fun-loving, single mother (Laura Dern- The Master, “Enlightened”) down, too, which only complicates matters further when her mother, Bobbi, is diagnosed with cancer.
Perhaps the only unforgivable deed committed in Wild, however, is the motif of quoting famous poets/ writers and attributing them to Strayed as well as the person who originally said the respective quote. It’s really difficult to take Cheryl seriously with this theme when one considers this exact routine was used as a joke on “The Office” to demonstrate just how little creativity Michael Scott had. The real Cheryl Strayed wrote an entire memoir and yet the film quotes other literary works? Maybe I just had to read the work for myself before a viewing to understand this—but if that’s the case, it’s Wild’s ultimate flaw.
Like Dallas Buyers Club, the narrative is based on a true story and director Vallée tracks time with an occasional on-screen count that even bears the same font. Both films feature hard-living, experimental, and sexually-promiscuous protagonists whose varying degrees of adverse sex lives have awful consequences directly plot-related. Both films also boast a tremendous supporting cast. Jared Leto, like lead McConaughey, earned the Oscar that night for DBC. Wild isn’t favorited to win any supporting awards, but Laura Dern turns in a nomination-worthy, transcendent performance as a dying mother who gets back into school at a nontraditional age after divorcing an abusive alcoholic. Character actor W. Earl Brown (Draft Day, Knights of Badassdom) plays a brief yet lingering role as a kind farmer that helps Cheryl on her path.
Wild certainly isn’t new or even difficult territory for filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée as he’s already proven to make a superior emotional, period biopic with excellence a year ago with Dallas Buyers Club. With both pictures he turned two typical Oscar-bait scripts into something more—a cinematic experience. Reese Witherspoon leads a talented supporting cast as a woman hiking 1,100 miles of the hot and snowy Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. She’s sure to find an opportunity to win another Oscar in 2015 for playing a character based on a real-life person.