Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Review: "Wild"

Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Runtime: 120 minutes

By the time Cheryl Strayed reaches the end of her 1100 mile journey in Wild, she has undergone a radical transformation. The experience is full of hardship, exhaustion, and pain, as it forces Strayed to combat not only nature, but her own traumatic past. Wild, based on Strayed's memoir about her journey up the Pacific Crest Trail, is a story of accepting the past and pushing onwards into the uncharted future. Yet by the time Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) has finished telling Strayed's story, very little of the subject's emotional journey actually registers. 

Wild arrives in theaters only three months after Tracks, another story of a woman coping with trauma by setting out onto miles of unforgiving terrain. Yet where John Curran's film found a slow-burning, poetic grace in its story, Wild's conclusions are purely prosaic. The most. Nature is rarely a generous scene partner, but when properly utilized it can accentuate (and even mirror) the internal evolution of a character. Vallee never fully taps into the rugged beauty of his surroundings so that one feels how they wear away at Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) over time, despite the blisters and cuts and bloodied toe nails. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Wild, its editing, may also be the thing that's holding it back. Vallee, working with Martin Pensa, moves seamlessly strings together moments of Strayed's hike, her recent past, and her childhood as if to create a cinematic mosaic. Unfortunately, once all of the pieces of glass have been set down and one steps back, the end result isn't terribly convincing or satisfying. Wild's flashbacks and dreams cover quite a bit of ground - most notably time with Strayed's mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) - and nothing really has time to stick. Though this structure neutralizes the threat of goopy sentimentality, it goes too far in the opposite direction. Wild is not a cold film, but it does feel like it lacks passion, despite the efforts of its protagonist.

Performances built around an actor interacting with nature can be hit or miss, but at least Witherspoon is enough to keep one invested as Vallee goes through the motions. In tiny moments where the script actually allows its several layers to fuse together, Witherspoon shows us glimpses of the heart-wrenching performance that almost was. Yet, too often, she's tasked with bland voice over and wading through shots that require nothing more than looking around and squinting. Wild is about Strayed coming to terms with her past, but Witherspoon doesn't have many opportunities to work that struggle into Strayed's actual travels. Instead, Vallee is content to piece together her psyche through visual juxtapositions that make sense on a symbolic level yet never connect emotionally.

Despite running just under two hours, Wild is often too efficient for its own good. Strayed finally has her eureka moment, only for the film to jump into a final bit of rambling voice over. The film's would-be moment of tremendous catharsis is unceremoniously discarded before it even has the chance to sink in. Wild's biggest sin isn't that it butchers Strayed's epic personal odyssey, but that it reduces it to something so ordinary. It's telling that the most insightful thoughts the film offers come from authors like Dickinson and Whitman, instead of Strayed's own head. Strayed's journey must have been quite something to go through, but Vallee has transformed it into something totally tame. 

Grade: C+ 

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