dir: Jean-Marc Vallee
A person goes for a long walk. A really long walk. It’s not to throw a ring into a volcano. It’s not to get to the airport to stop someone from leaving. It’s not because a drug cartel is after them, or to honour the last wishes of someone who just died.
It’s so she can…?
I’m not entirely sure why, and I loved the film. I haven’t read the book this is based on, but I think I’d like to based on this movie.
Wild is not an easy movie to love. Mostly, as you might guess, we’re watching a person walking along the West Coast of the United States.
Interspersed between scenes of walking, we get Cheryl Strayed backstory. She is a real person, a real woman. We glimpse her in the movie, as one of the kind drivers who pick up Cheryl along the way.
Most of this story, as in Cheryl’s long, agonising march to victory, occurs in 1995, but much of it comes from earlier, being scenes from her childhood, adolescence, and early twenties. In those times we see Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) as a beautiful, resilient woman that never ceases to irritate Cheryl until she loses her.
You get the impression that Cheryl’s mother was very important to her, not just as a mother, but as an inspiration towards her pursuit of a life in letters.
The things is, much of this imagery from her past is obtrusive. It comes as jagged flashes, like unwanted thoughts and images popping into one’s mind unbidden, while someone is going along and doing something. It’s almost akin to someone on a long hike having their mind wander, and go to places pleasant and unpleasant, ideas surface and recede, not always connecting, but still give an impression of a meaningful stream.
There’re the pleasant; the images of a happy mother aspiring to a humble life of appreciating beauty wherever she can; images of sex, and images of despair, and drug taking. There’s a lot of drug use, and scenes of conflict with an exasperated partner, fucking and dying, horses and dancing, grieving and chasing the dragon.
It takes a long time for those images to cohere, to come together, because essentially what we’re getting for the first hour is the chronicle of a woman trying to achieve something very difficult in order to be able to say that she achieved something (the 1,100 mile hike) with aggravating edits cutting in to make us uneasy, and to give us a hint of why this is all happening, without giving us a neat explanation.
But that’s the thing: we’re never given a pat explanation as to why. There isn’t a neat uplifting, empowering message to take away from this flick. What beauty in nature Cheryl saw out there alone, for the most part, what internal resources she used to keep herself motivated enough to keep going, none of it comes across as a prescription for happiness or self-actualisation. Of course the book itself is probably marketed as such, and possibly sits in the self-help aisle of the bookshop (remember those?), but I can honestly say the screenplay, the central performance and the film overall don’t come across as that mawkishly sentimental Eat Pray Love kind of bullshit.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) begins the film, begins our time with her, by prising off a hiking boot, as she sits, having just gotten to the top of a tall ridge. The removed boot reveals a bleeding foot, one upon which the nails seem to be coming off. That would seem to be bad enough, but the problem is, or at least the latest problem is that she drops one of her boots, and it plummets far, far below.
What’s a woman to do, other than throw the other boot after it and scream with rage into the abyss?
We get the clear impression that Cheryl is somewhat lost. Her marriage to some guy has fallen over, and she’s going on a really long hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. Why? Why not? I don’t know and doubt whether the author that this book and performance are based on started out thinking “I hope I get a book deal out of this”, because it seems way too random. And the decision to go on this journey seems both dedicated and arbitrary, in that there isn’t really any reason to go on the hike other than to go on the hike.
What does it say about person who can complete something like this? I’m not sure. I’m sure there have been wonderful people who’ve completed the same hike, and I’m sure there were a lot of arseholes as well. Most of them never had a movie made about them, so what’s different about Cheryl?
I’m not entirely sure, but the glimpses I get of her through the movie, through the use of her words seems to indicate that she is a remarkably thoughtful person, and an incisive writer, inspired and not as self-centred as one might think (solely based on genre, in that she’s written a memoir, and there can’t be anything more self-centred than that). She’s not offering excuses for her behaviour (it’s of no moment or matter to me whether she used drugs and cheated on her partner stacks of times, but it seems to matter to her), and she’s not apologising either. There’s behaviour, in the sporadic flashbacks, that one could label self-destructive. I mean no-one ever tries to spin heroin use and sleeping with random people as anything other than harmful (it’s so close minded, so judgemental as well, except when it’s Nick Cave doing it).
So the simplistic take on this glorious hike is that through physical hardship and endurance, Cheryl’s going to ‘cure’ herself of her addiction to hot sex with multiple partners and her hankering for hard drugs.
That’s never going to happen. Drugs and sex are way too enjoyable. But it could help her come to grips with her lingering grief and guilt over her mother’s death, which the script overtly tries to use as the reason for her ‘straying’. But then, in the flick’s most powerful thematic element, she negates the idea of seeing her actions as inherently bad, because they led her to her present. She lingers over a phrase from the Adrienne Rich poem Power about Marie Curie: “She died a famous woman denying her wounds / denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.”
Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power. She, being Cheryl, repeats the phrase in her mind. I wonder if it has any personal significance to her, hmm?
Of course it does. There are possibly dozens of interpretations of the poem, and of what it meant to Cheryl, but the one I’m choosing to engage with is the idea that Cheryl is thinking that the same place within her that kept her going on the trail despite the multiple hardships and the legions of scumbag men trying to fuck her or at least creep her out along the way, that place inside her is also the place overwhelmed by her grief, and the place that sought relief/release through rough sex and drug abuse. That same place, that same power that might seem toxic to others, is also what made her grasp the beauty around her on that amazing journey, and to seek to capture it with words, and to express her love of that beauty (borrowed from her mother’s eyes, at least at first) through her writing to others.
I’ll admit I’m a sucker for these kinds of films. I loved Into the Wild, and The Way (set on the Spanish Camino de Santiago, a long pilgrimage dwarfed by what Cheryl managed here), even though they’re all vastly different from each other. The virtue this flick has is that, at least for the most part, there’s the pleasure and the tension of watching one woman stumble along in her journey, and sharing her random musings that came to her as she travelled. Her joy at achieving small things, her relief at connecting with a few fellow hikers after many days/weeks on her own, Witherspoon’s performance perfectly captures so many facets of this experience. She’s generally not an actress whose work I appreciate, and even if this is Oscarbait par excellence, I really enjoyed watching her bring this character to life.
Life doesn’t fit in neat little boxes, and generally neither do people, unless they’re very simple and very boring. Cheryl, as portrayed by Witherspoon, is an interesting, resilient and complex woman who lived through some shit and did a pretty hardcore hike that most other people in the world would never do unless they had to (fleeing for their lives etc). That she didn’t ‘have’ to go on this journey, or write about it is irrelevant, because none of us have to do anything, and if we only do the things we ‘have’ to do, and only write the things we ‘have’ to write, well, the human world would just dwindle away and die from lack of life and interest.
Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee, in the last two years, has managed to direct two films that have delivered complicated ‘true life’ stories about flawed and complicated people whose edges aren’t filed off in order to get Oscar nominations (the other one being Dallas Buyers Club), and yet they’ve succeeded (critically, not necessarily box office-wise) because of the incredible character work he gets out of these actors. I applaud him for it, and I applaud him, Witherspoon and Cheryl Strayed for bringing this story to the screen.
8 times throwing that second boot off the ridge is a classic ‘Fuck You’ to an indifferent universe out of 10
“What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn't do anything differently than I had done? What if I'd actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn't have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” – then you’d be a woman worthy of my respect and admiration, and I'd enjoy sharing a couple of beers with you - Wild