Set up as a story of silent self-discovery amidst gorgeous landscapes, any outsider would be forgiven for thinking Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild is this year’s Eat, Pray, Love. However, when we’re greeted with a grim close-up of Reese Witherspoon dislodging a dodgy toenail less than 5 minutes in, it’s clear that Wild is a film with a little more dirt (and likely infection) under its nails.
The film follows Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) on a one-woman hike into the abyss. She’s running from her past; escaping her mistakes, but we’re not supposed to know that yet. Vallée doesn’t want us too. He wants us to see it all as slowly as possible. The trouble is, most of us have already guessed it. Some of us even have a solid idea of exactly what Strayed’s done and where she’s been. Granted, that might be because some of us have read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, but here, I’m talking about those of us, like myself, who haven’t read the book. Those of us who’ve just seen a lot of movies.
Strayed’s solo trek is told chronologically, but her backstory is fed to us in flashback bites; puzzle pieces curved with clichés, but all with a purpose. That purpose is entertainment, and it does work (sort of). There are predictabilities and dialogic hiccups galore, but it’s all edited, fragmented and delivered in such a way that keeps us hungry for more, regardless of the mushy taste.
The key issue with Wild, is simply that it’s neither as raw, nor as poetic as it thinks it is, or as it so desperately strives to be. Considering Cheryl Strayed is an actual person, and the film is based on her memoir, the former is a real problem. Considering the film’s directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, a master of unpretentious nuance, a la Dallas Buyers Club, the latter is also a problem.
Nick Hornby is credited with adapting the screenplay, and with a character like Strayed, a soaked-up, obsessive runaway, it’s easy to see what attracted him to the story. He does a good job, too, because Strayed’s psychology and her relationship with her minimally developed mother (Laura Dern) are by far two of the most interesting, semi-authentic aspects of the movie.
From start to finish, though, Wild plays like a contrived, fictional story. The focus is on entertainment, and the tone is neither uplifting nor inspiring, mostly due to the absence of unflinching truth usually so vital to this kind of story. The film is a sort of moody-mystery-meets-vague-quest, glued together by random literature quotes, clever edits and majestic mountains shot with wide-angle lenses. Wild isn’t a bad film; it’s interesting, picturesque and even has a bittersweet comic bite. The problem is that it just isn’t the film it should be. It should be shattering; it should star more infected toenails, it should feel real. I would walk a thousand miles and I would walk a thousand more to be the man to tell Vallée & co. just that during pre-production.