by Patrick Bromley
Wild is this year's Dallas Buyers Club: a competently-made film built around a movie star performance that will most likely garner Academy Awards attention despite being mostly hollow. That's not a coincidence, as both films are directed by French Canadian filmmaker Jean -Marc Vallée, a director who wants to make important human stories but seems only capable of making slicker, better-acted TV movies.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, the real-life author who wrote the memoir (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail) on which this film is based. After divorcing her husband, Cheryl decides to hike thousands of miles along the PCT by herself with only a limited knowledge of camping and a few supplies to get her through. On the trail, Cheryl confronts the seemingly limitless demons from her past, which includes hardcore drug use, anonymous sex and general despair in the wake of her mom's (Laura Dern) death from cancer. Will Cheryl survive the treacherous journey alone in the wilderness? And will she finally heal herself enough to publish a book about her experiences, which will subsequently be optioned and made into a film starring an Oscar-winning actress who will likely be nominated again for her performance in said film? No spoilers.
Because it's based on a memoir, Wild puts me in the impossible position of not wanting to criticize a film because it would mean criticizing its subject's life. It would be all too easy to roll my eyes at the scenes in which Cheryl leaves behind lines of poetry she's quoting and even more easy to roll them when fellow travelers meet up with and recognize her from the poems she's left. I want to call it a terrible writer's conceit, one which exists only to create the "legend of Cheryl Stayed" passed down through the hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. But because it comes from Strayed's book and, presumably, her actual life, I have to accept it not as a conceit but as a real thing that happened. Reconciling that can be a challenge. Either Cheryl Strayed lived her life like it was a movie or Jean-Marc Vallée is unable to make those movie-like moments feel like a real life.
Like Tracks from earlier this year and 127 Hours before it and Into the Wild before that, Wild features many shots of a movie star against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery. It teaches us that venturing out into nature is the best path to self-discovery. It lets us get to know a fictionalized version of a real-life figure who thankfully didn't meet with as tragic an end as Christopher McCandless or even suffer as much physical hardship as Aron Ralston (though she does lose a toenail at one point and it's pretty gross). It's got a good movie star performance in the service of little else, and while Cheryl Strayed's story is interesting and often heartbreaking, I have to assume it is done better justice by her book. Jean-Marc Vallée is only able to make the material very pretty and very literal.