Friday, January 2, 2015

Wild: An incredible journey

Wild (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for nudity, sexual content, profanity and drug use

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.2.15

In June 1995, at the age of 26 and with her life in what could have been an inescapable downward spiral, Cheryl Strayed impulsively — foolishly, naïvely, absurdly — embarked on a solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

A glimpse backward, at a happier time: Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon, right) watches as her
mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) enjoys a daily ride on the beloved horse that is one of the
few precious things in her life.
The Minneapolis-based liberal arts scholar — magna cum laude, with a double major in English and women’s studies — had zero experience with such activities, but she knew one thing: Her life was in crisis, and she had to do something.

Attempting to regain her soul while trekking through Nature’s wonderland likely seemed a reasonable plan.

The resulting memoir — Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail — was published in the spring of 2012, reaching No. 1 on The New York Times Best Seller list that July. The book was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, and in fact had been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company before copies even hit bookstores.

And so here we are, two years and change later, with director Jean-Marc Vallée’s big-screen adaptation bringing Witherspoon the best reviews of her career: accolades that are heartily deserved.

Vallée will be remembered as the director/editor who just last year guided Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Academy Awards in Dallas Buyers Club. Clearly, Vallée has a gift for extracting the best from his actors, and he has worked the same magic here: not merely with Witherspoon, but also — and equally notably — with Laura Dern, utterly luminescent as Cheryl’s wise and loving mother, Bobbi.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if both Witherspoon and Dern galloped home with the same two Oscars.

Vallée also is drawn to fact-based stories involving people in deep spiritual crisis: self-destructive individuals who — whether through anger, anguish or an epiphany — abruptly resolve to turn things around, to make a difference. Two decades passed before scrappy AIDS angel Ron Woodroof’s saga became a film, in Dallas Buyers Club; I’m intrigued by the similar length of time that passed before Strayed felt comfortable turning her chronicle into a book (after which, the film couldn’t have been made faster).

One suspects she needed time to process everything.

As I recently observed, while discussing both The Theory of Everything and Unbroken, the big screen is a challenging medium when adapting a book that spends so much time in the author’s head. Celebrated British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) was selected to work his deft skills on Wild, and he succeeded brilliantly.

Films that rely heavily on flashbacks can be annoying; it can be an awkward and sloppy device that scuttles our involvement with both the “present” activities, and the crucial past events that brought our protagonist to this moment. But Hornby deserves credit for a clever and highly engaging approach to Strayed’s book.

The flashbacks are informative and employed in a manner that reflects Strayed’s state of mind, as her journey progresses: at first chaotic glimpses that mostly tantalize us with details of a tempestuous childhood and a recent life lived very badly; and then longer, more thoughtful memories that cut to the core of her shattered psyche.

On top of which, we share Strayed’s anguish in similarly calculated portions. Some suspense builds much like a mystery, with Hornby reserving the most heartbreaking tragedies until the third act, by which time we’re better prepared to confront them ... just as Strayed is herself.

Perhaps this film’s most intriguing element is the fact that we don’t really like Strayed all that much: a bold move, on Witherspoon’s part. To be sure, we readily admire her stubborn pluck, and the angry rage against the universe that fuels her trek, particularly as it starts. But she isn’t very nice, at first blush, and not merely because of the promiscuity and heroin use that torpedoes her marriage to the despairing Paul (Thomas Sadoski, recently seen as a regular in HBO’s The Newsroom, and doing fine work here).

No, even before those events, Strayed casually displays the cruel arrogance we often see from newly minted university scholars. The most wincingly awful jab comes when Cheryl nonchalantly mentions that it must be difficult for her far less educated mother to stand in the shadow of a clearly superior daughter.

Both actresses handle this scene brilliantly: Witherspoon with the quietly chill, upturned-nose condescension that also served her so well back in 1999’s Election; Dern initially reacting as though she’s been struck in the face, but recovering quickly and somehow, miraculously, turning the exchange around in such a way that even a reasonably sensitive young adult would perceive how badly she has wounded her parent.

But Cheryl, at this point in her life, is neither reasonable nor sensitive; she’s merely flush with the hubris of faux sophistication ... an affectation that will be exposed as shallow, hollow and useless when her life crumbles.

Like I said, we don’t like her much. And we like her less as events proceed.

At the same time, though, we absolutely feel sorry for her, and for her mother: two women impacted by the harsh realities of hard-scrabble poverty and a frightened, tempestuous life with the abusive, alcoholic dirt bag Bobbi married. But Bobbi refuses to be defined by this lengthy mistake, looking back on it. (The husband — Cheryl’s father — is long gone by her young adulthood.)

Dern has a telling speech on this topic: a plucky, defiant monolog that could have sounded snickeringly cornball if delivered even slightly wrong. But Hornby scripted it brilliantly, and — under Vallée’s guidance — Dern delivers it persuasively.

It’s the key lesson that Cheryl can’t grasp, and believes is irrelevant ... until her world caves in.

Clearly, a narrative with this much tragedy could become a major downer, but that also never happens. Vallée and Hornby work in sly comic relief, starting with the near-slapstick hilarity of Cheryl’s approach to her impending hike: boots a size too small; a huge pack three sizes too large, and far too heavy; sustaining equipment — tent, portable stove — that she doesn’t bother to practice with, before embarking.

Some of the folks she encounters along the way also provide moments of levity, most notably a near-surreal conversation with a self-proclaimed journalist improbably named Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae), who wants to interview her as a “lady hobo.” Gentle giggles also emerge when Cheryl meekly submits to some packing advice from a “hiker guru” (Cliff De Young, as Ed) who clearly knows his stuff ... and what should not be stuffed into a pack.

One gets a sense, as Cheryl’s journey proceeds, that omniscient forces are keeping an eye on her: either God, or perhaps the unlikely fox that keeps turning up, and might possibly represent her mother’s spirit avatar. Whatever the reason, Cheryl is mostly fortunate with her unexpected encounters: whether Frank (W. Earl Brown), the wary but compassionate farmer who teaches her an early lesson about trust; or Greg (Kevin Rankin), a more experienced PCT hiker.

But these kind folks, and several others, lull us — and Cheryl — into a false sense of security: a feeling that abruptly dissolves when she meets up with two other guys who clearly aren't safe. Cue our rapidly rising anxiety...

Gaby Hoffman makes the most of her brief screen time as Aimee, Cheryl’s best friend in Minneapolis; Michiel Huisman also is memorable as Jonathan, an Ashland-based free spirit who meets Cheryl at a telling moment.

On the other hand, Keene McRae can’t get a handle on his role as Cheryl’s younger brother Leif. It’s not entirely McRae’s fault; Leif is handled rather poorly in Hornby’s script (or, maybe, some of Leif’s key scenes got left on the cutting-room floor). The script also skirts the fallout from Cheryl’s unplanned pregnancy, as she’s hitting rock-bottom in Minneapolis: a telling event that could have benefited from better closure.

Yves Bélanger’s cinematography is exquisite, and I can see his handling of various PCT vistas sparking renewed interest in this ambitious hike (although one hopes that anybody so motivated approaches the challenge with a bit more common sense than our heroine).

Vallée prefers to augment his films with source music, rather than dramatic scores; longtime Simon & Garfunkel fans will recognize the opening few measures of “El Condor Pasa,” employed frequently, at telling moments, but allowed to progress to the vocal only once. Similarly, a bit of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead pop up once Cheryl reaches Ashland, for reasons that are immediately obvious.

Comparing this film to this past summer’s Tracks is an intriguing exercise, since both films depict young women on journeys of (hoped-for) spiritual healing. For my money, “Wild” is superior: The performances are stronger, the stakes higher, and the outcome far more emotionally satisfying.

It’s a helluva story ... and a welcome affirmation that solace and serenity are possible, no matter how bad things have gotten.

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