Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Miles to Go


Reese Witherspoon in "Wild"

is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed last year’s Oscar-winning Dallas Buyers Club. I mention that at the outset so that anyone who saw the earlier film can have an idea of what Wild is like, before I’ve said anything about the experience of watching it. The two differ, naturally, in particulars, but the idea of narrowly focussing on a single character, and the techniques used by Vallée and his crew, are markedly similar, and, if you have any strong feelings, either positive or negative, for Dallas Buyers Club, you hardly need go on reading this.

The differing particulars of Wild: our central character is Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who, in the wake of her mother’s (Laura Dern) death and subsequent lapse into heroin addiction and infidelity to and divorce from her husband (Thomas Sadoski), hikes the entire Pacific Crest Trail, running parallel to the west coast of the US. The trail is a little over 4,000 kilometres long, and the film, consistently candid in tone, never shies away from showing the physical toll it takes on Strayed. For the first part of it, her boots are too tight, and she suffers much pain from walking in them for weeks; when she does finally get rid of them, her alternative – sandals and duct tape – brings on dreadful blisters. On the first night, she realises she’s brought the wrong fuel for her gas stove, and must go for more than a week eating cold and raw food. Her monstrosity of a backpack is nearly bigger than she is, and requires considerable effort to lift, and stamina to carry around. For her entire journey, Strayed must endure the scrapes over her shoulders and down her back from carrying it. And she stinks, badly and inveterately.

But this physical distress is not the worst pain she bears. Cheryl Strayed is a living person, and Wild is based on her memoirs. The plot of her hiking, for gruelling months on end, presented chronologically, is intermittently broken by flashbacks to her life before her great trek. The hike is an attempt to heal and recover from the grief of her mother’s death, the break-up from the man she loved, and years of destructive behaviour. Elizabeth Gilbert, who similarly wrote a memoir (“Eat Pray Love”) of an attempt to reënter life after great emotional upheaval, spent a year in Italy (indulging unreservedly in various sensual pleasures), India (meditating endlessly, addressing the divinity within herself), and Indonesia (setting herself the task of learning happiness and love once more). Hers is the soothing and sanctimonious bourgeois counterpart to Strayed’s working class, impious resolution.

Strayed’s hike has a number of stopping points, and each represents a new stage in redemption and recovery. Various sights and encounters trigger memories, which are abrupt and often tiresomely short, sometimes a quick montage of single shots. And while the hike is told of linearly, the flashbacks occur in no particular order, and we’re not always sure of what point of Strayed’s life we’re currently looking at. Much more sensible, and effective, is the inner monologue Strayed has at various moments, describing quick thoughts and feelings, and occasionally showing the strain her ordeal is taking on her mind, when she can only focus on a single word, or her consciousness shrivels away in the intense heat and sunlight. But the most gripping moments in the film are in each interaction Strayed has with a man, or with men. We sense the erotic possibility in each of them, often dreaded by Strayed, who is here precisely to avoid free and detached sex, and some, along with this implicit eroticism, are troubled with fear and anxiety. Who can say what men who have been hiking about the wilderness for weeks can restrain themselves from doing, or coercing out of a lone woman?

The techniques used in this film are nothing new, or affecting. The camera doesn’t seem drawn to Witherspoon as much as anxious not to let her out of its sight. Close-ups of her are abundant and gratuitous. There are also some jittery, hand-held moments, presumably to give a heightened documentary and candid sense to the film. As in Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée shows no sense for framing, timing, or movement – of the camera or of the characters, only for narrative and performance, and even that seems tenuous. For example, no shot of the landscape lasts for more than a quick second or two before Witherspoon is in the shot. It’s as if the wilderness and natural setting wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for her. In a sense, that’s true – it’s unlikely Wild would have been made without the involvement of Witherspoon – but it’s not a suitable reason for giving us no sense of her milieu at any point of the film. We’re shown neither the splendour of the grand natural features surrounding Strayed throughout, nor any intimacy with the ground she’s been walking on, and spending every moment on for nearly half a year. And Witherspoon’s performance follows this narrowness of her director. She is a gifted performer, and a striking screen presence, but here she moves along with a bland naturalism, never quite breaking out, never quite arriving at the abandon required by the situation to evoke genuine emotion. The same was the problem with Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club: each has given remarkable performances in their careers, but can't give a great performance when the director doesn't allow it.

Wild is worth the time of those willing to go see it. The subject and issues are not trite, it eschews piety, even when its heroine is admirable and her struggles noble, and the film overall avoids banality and cliché. But its narrow view, and lack of perceptive depth within that view, makes for a less than full-blooded and invigorating experience, and a more literal telling of events than a lyrical tale.

Laura Dern as Strayed's beloved mother in "Wild"

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