Wild (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wild (2014)

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Wild is the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of the same name, telling the story of her one-woman trek across the Pacific Crest Trail.  Jean-Marc Vallee directs from a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Collecting before sunsetWild is nothing like I expected. I didn’t expect the tears straining against the corners of my eyes as Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) delivered the film’s voiceover at the end. Because in one sense this was an ending, Cheryl arrives at the end of the Pacific Crest Trail and has nowhere else to go. But all the pain Cheryl experienced on the trail and in the events of her life leading to that moment was transformed into something new.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s previous feature, Dallas Buyers Club, featured an impeccable performance from Matthew McConaughey but never hit a moment of transcendence for me. There was something about the visceral way Vallee presented McConaughey’s suffering in gritty photography with the leading man frequently on the floor, that underlined the pain a bit too much. But with Wild, again with cinematographer Yves Belanger, Vallee unmoors his approach. It’s no less visceral but is not restricted by space or time, jumping into Cheryl’s emotional and physical reality as even the slightest suggestion of the past comes soaring back to consume her present.

I needed this. I’ve been fighting my own physical and emotional battles over the last couple of years and I needed this reminder that the pain of existence can be transformed and reborn into something new. I felt liberated at the end of Wild in a way only a handful of films have been able to accomplish. It transforms something vital about being alive into images we can share in together.

The emotional immediacy of Wild is brought to life in some nightmarish images, such as a rain of blood inside Cheryl's tent.

The emotional immediacy of Wild is brought to life in some nightmarish images, such as a rain of blood inside Cheryl's tent.

What most impressed me about Wild was the suggestion that so much of our mental state is comprised of our physical well-being. The opening scene of Wild shows as much with a wide shot of a picturesque canyon, the kind you feel you could have an epiphany over, only to show Cheryl’s body suddenly fill the frame. She moans, screams, pulls her boots off and in one painful shot rips her toenail off of her foot. It’s a mission statement – we in the audience will be anchored in her reality even if it looks more like she’ll be lost in nature.

Over and again in Wild we’ll see Cheryl try and ground herself via a physical sensation. But unlike in Dallas Buyers Club, we never linger on Cheryl as she tries to fill the void in her life with drugs and sex. The images are there, yes, but they’re fleeting. Cheryl’s viewpoint shifts based on emotional tangents, so we watch as her extramarital affairs fail to give her satisfaction just as she realizes she’s so lonely that she wants the company of a fox who looks at her curiously.

But with the pain comes the memory of pleasure, and this is where Laura Dern’s performance has worked up a lot of praise. She’s in the film for maybe ten minutes, at most, and brings such an immense sense of good along with her that she becomes angelic. Her line readings are the most painful, and liberating, in Wild. Listen to the way Dern abandons the pain of her cancer diagnosis to provide questioning comfort to her daughter, and then immediately goes into disillusionment not at her diagnosis but that she never took the time to be herself.

Laura Dern's performance is her most humanistic and reassuring despite her minimal screen time.

Laura Dern's performance is her most humanistic and reassuring despite her minimal screen time.

Witherspoon is no slouch in Wild either. Dramatically speaking - I don’t think she’s ever been this good, not even in her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line. For Wild to work, Witherspoon needed her performance to be as emotionally unmoored as Vallee’s images. She responds with a sort of unfocused despair, modulating Cheryl to be a creature who understands what warmth and beauty her life is capable of but still finding herself back at the moment she felt like she was just another dot in the universe. Witherspoon’s detached performance provides a counterpoint to Dern’s more angelic approach, and a needed groundwork for her eventual spiritual discovery.

I’ve discussed before how spirituality, true revelation in pain and sacrifice, is becoming something to scorn in movies. The revelations in Wild, and the subtle marks that Cheryl’s mother left on the world with her passing, are quiet and true. Some of the most powerful scenes in Wild deal with Cheryl’s passage through her personal hell onto something greater. All the while that lingering presence just tugs at the edges, reminding Cheryl of the good she could be capable of if she just learned to let go.

So we get lost in the trail with Cheryl. We receive every reminder she does about the pain she’s trying to leave behind. At any point she could fall into that open expanse and end her miserable existence. Or she could put her old pains to rest in the hopes of being reborn into something more. Wild is transformative, painful, and exhilarating. I hope it uplifts you the same way it did for me.

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Tail - WildWild (2014)

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
Screenplay written by Nick Hornby.
Starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

Posted by Andrew

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