Mark Reviews Movies



3 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Michiel Huisman, Thomas Sadoski, Kevin Rankin, Charles Baker, Brian Van Holt, W. Earl Brown, Nick Eversman, Mo McRae

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language)

Running Time: 1:55

Release Date: 12/3/14 (limited); 12/5/14 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 4, 2014

A woman embarks on a 1,100-mile trek across the desert on a scenic trail. We think we know the beats of the story of Wild as it begins. She will take in the beauty of the natural landscape. She will encounter difficulties from without and within, facing more than a couple of the basic types of narrative conflict. An encounter with another person on the path may be innocent or may lead to exactly the kind of threat that anyone alone in the middle desert would fear. Nature has its dangerous side, too, in the form of wild animals and inclement weather and natural obstacles. Then there's the person's mind, which starts saying to stop this pointless hike while she can still see the starting point.

We think we know how this story will unfold, and yes, all of the beats we expect are here in the film. People come, and people go. They are possible friends and potential threats. Animals appear. A rattlesnake warns that she's getting too close, and an injured fox looks at her with curiosity before limping away to its inevitable fate.

The rain falls. The snow has amassed on the ground. Rocks are in her way, and the slope of a hillside claims one of her boots before she throws the other one in an act of angry defiance that is somehow both absurd and completely rational (It is not a solution to her problem, but then again, there's no need to have just one boot). Her inner monologue tells her stop, tells her how easy it would be quit, and tells her to listen to the pain in her body, to take heed of the sweat pouring down her face, and to realize that a person can only go so long without food and water during a task as physically grueling as this self-inflicted one.

There is no logical reason for this journey. There is no obvious reward at the end of it. She is not breaking new ground or finding some undiscovered terrain off the beaten path. Her hike doesn't even fit the old mantra that has been claimed by travelers and explorers throughout time: because it's there.

The reward is intangible and unknown. The only thing more beaten than the path is her. She's not taking this hike because it's there. She's doing it because she needs to do it, and that need is as inexplicable as the goal she's trying to obtain.

The film is set on the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through the Mojave Desert to California and up to Washington. We see what we anticipate from this trail along the way: vast and desolate landscapes, rocky elevations, snowy plains, thick forests, and occasional glimpses at civilization in the form of camping grounds, highways, and cities and towns. They all bleed together for Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who has more mysterious and miserable ground through which to venture while on her journey.

The physical backdrop of the story is the trail, but the far more vital and vibrant one is the repetitive, unceasing terrain of Cheryl's memory. Like the path, there's a place it begins, and there's a place where it ends. It has its landmarks. It has sections that seem as familiar as the last stretch, and some of its regions become a blur. It is treacherous and punishing and seems never to end.

Also like the trail, she wants to abandon her memories but knows that is not an option. Whatever force put her on the trail is not going to disappear until she walks it.

In adapting Strayed's memoir of the same name, director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby have provided us with the cinematic equivalent of that literary style. Here is a collection of memories of the half-remembered and impossible-to-forget varieties. They come seemingly out of nowhere in the midst of the exhausting, three-month hike. Nothing specific triggers them. They arrive because they must—because the walk is a kind of redemptive self-punishment to atone for years of unthinking self-punishment. Cheryl, we learn, chooses her last name after her divorce by picking a word out of a dictionary. It's no coincidence that it's a declarative statement—a mark of remorse. Cheryl strayed—from her husband, her family, her health, and her childhood dreams and expectations. Now Cheryl strays from her life in the hope of rediscovering it.

We see Cheryl in an argument with her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) but do not hear the topic because her ears are covered. We see flashes of Cheryl's mother (Laura Dern) dancing for her children and extending her arms but do not understand the context of this act. We see a man and woman in the throes of sexual ecstasy but have no faces to identify either participant. As the memories become clearer, we understand the hesitancy to reveal the details. It is not a contrived mystery but an act of repression.

The film resides inside Cheryl's mind, which has been tormented by grief and guilt and is currently in a kind of overdrive despite the external stimuli of nature and physical aching. The editing (by Vallée—under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy—Martin Pensa) takes us in and out of Cheryl's memories without warning in the same way a memory can appear out of and disappear into the ether of thought with minimal or no prompting. By the end of the film, we have a more complete picture of this woman, who has abused her body, betrayed her loved ones, and pretty much abandoned hope of returning to normalcy after a great loss but holds on to a single thought: She can change.

It's a simple, fundamental notion but one that is powerfully realized through Vallée's seamless juxtaposition of challenges in Cheryl's present and trauma in her past. It's also affectingly evoked by Witherspoon's performance, which keeps her character ever on the brink of a collapse, only to be rescued by an engrained strength, and always on the brink of some life-altering revelation, only to be restrained by some deep-seated anguish. The journey is not more important than the destination in Wild. The journey is the destination.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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