Wild opens today in select theaters. Here is my original review from TIFF.
As director Jean-Marc Valleé proved in Dallas Buyer’s Club, a straight-white-savior-during-the-AIDS-epidemic story that unforgivably made me not hate Jared Leto for a few minutes,Valleé has a talent for taking what should be unwatchable awards-pandering drivel and making it into a pretty damned watchable movie. Wild doesn’t have quite the sexy, sensationalist appeal of Dallas Buyer’s Club, or Matthew McConaughey losing 40 pounds and having freaky AIDS sex at a needle exchange, but once again, Valleé has taken a movie that shouldn’t be very good and made it mostly okay. It’s the kind of movie that makes me want to say “good job,” but also… “why?”
Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, and if Reese hadn’t already won an Oscar for Walk The Line, I’d say this role pulls out all the stops – nudity, drug abuse, affirmation, triumphs over adversity both physical and emotional accompanied by copious voiceover and flashback. Just as McConaughey went un-nominated after incredible turns in Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and Mud, and couldn’t get a statue until he pretended to die of AIDS, Reese Witherspoon was passed over for Tracy Flick and Legally Blonde (don’t laugh, she was great in it) and was only recognized once she took the role of historical figure in a perfectly middlebrow geezer-nip musician biopic. Which is to say, I don’t blame the actors for the way they are, the awards committees have made them this way.
Anyway, Witherspoon’s Strayed (who wrote the memoir that forms the basis of Wild) has had a rough time of it of late, getting into needle drugs and freaky-deaky sex after the passing of her mom (played by Jurassic Park’s original clever girl Laura Dern). In an attempt to get her life back together/put together an awesome book proposal, she sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, alone, in a sort of combination Eat, Pray, Love/Into the Wild journey of self-discovery. “I’m going to walk myself back into the woman my mother thought I was,” she says.
On the eve of her big journey, Strayed calls her ex-husband, The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski (a much more enjoyable actor when he’s not spewing Sorkin smugisms). Sympathetic, he tells her, “Anyway, I’m sorry you have to do this.”
“Do what?” She asks.
“Walk 1,000 miles to… to…” he falters.
“To what? Finish that sentence. Why do I have to walk 1,000 miles?” she asks. At which point it took every ounce of restraint in my body not to shout “TO FALL DOWN AT YOUR DOOR! …DADAT NAAA! (DADAT NAAAA!) DADAT NAAA! (DADAT NAAAA!) …DUDA DUNN DUDA DUNN DUDA DUNN DAA DAA…” in a room full of TIFF journalists.
Sorry, I just miss the Proclaimers. So Strayed sets off on her journey, and all the while, Valeé maintains a consistent level of tension by having every man she meets along her way get rapey with her. It starts with a farmer Strayed comes upon while he’s driving his tractor across the middle of the Mojave. She begs him to take her someplace where she can refill her propane tank, and at first he reacts angrily. “I’m working!” he says, leaving unanswered the question of WHAT THE F*CK HE’S PLOWING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE GODDAMN DESERT. Whatcha growin’ out there, Farmer Bob? Meth? Anyway, he turns out to be nice, unlike some Deliverance-esque you-got-a-purdy-figure rednecks she meets later in the trip. It’s almost like a game of Clue. Who is going to rape Reese Witherspoon? Is the fat man in the desert with the tractor? The redneck in the swamp with the crossbow? I’m not entirely sure what the subtext is here, possibly some ambiguous point about her past addictions and heartbreak making her catnip for abusers, but it makes for a compelling watch.
Parallel to her journey up the PCT, we learn about Strayed’s past through flashbacks, notably during a sequence in which Witherspoon and Sadoski get matching tattoos from a tattoo artist played by Everclear’s Art Alexakis. And yes, I recognized him without checking IMDB, so if that’s impressive to you, maybe we could live beside the ocean, leave the fires behind, swim out past the breakers, and watch the world die. Anyway, the two seem pretty chummy, and Alexakis asks if they’re married, them getting matching tattoos and all. Turns out they’re divorced. Because Witherspoon cheated on him. A lot. We also learn that “Strayed” is not a family name, but rather a made-up name Witherspoon’s character CHOSE in the aftermath of their adultery troubles. Strayed. Because she “strayed” from her husband, I guess. The movie just sort of flops that big ding dong out there, never mentions it again, and leaves it hanging the rest of the movie. Now, I don’t know about you, but the question of why this lady decided to go on a 1,000-mile nature hike through the wilds of rape country is somewhat less interesting to me than the fact that she’s voluntarily living with a self-applied, titular scarlet letter. Say what? It’s almost as if she’s still living with his ghost. Lonely and dreaming of the west coast. And he doesn’t wanna be her good time. Doesn’t wanna be her fall back crutch anymore.
Sadly, the film is far more interested in the fascinating tale of Reese Witherspoon falling down, getting blisters, eating cold oatmeal, dodging rapists, etc. and courageously picking herself back up again than it is with the whole “strayed” thing. The gender dynamic is the elephant in the room the whole time, but rather than enhancing through subtext, it feels like an unfinished outline for a better movie. Instead there’s a hilarious bit of product placement, where Strayed shows up to an outpost with bleeding feet, and an old-timer tells her it’s because her boots are too small. But what can she do? She’s in the middle of a hike. Did you buy them from REI? The old-timer asks. Because you can just call REI and they’ll mail you another pair to your next stop, no questions asked! Hooray REI! Not only are they a great company, their spokespeople seem disinclined to rape. You know, I suddenly feel like buying some boots from REI.
There are some interesting things going on in Wild, but the movie seems mostly content to sweep them aside while hitting all the predictable awards-movie beats. It’s a movie that’s decently compelling and easy to watch (other than a painful scene where a little boy on the trail who has also lost someone special sings Reese a song), but not exactly one you need to rush out to see either. If it looks like something you’d like, you’ll probably love it. It looked like something I’d hate and it was mostly okay.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.