Rating:The opening scene of Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild amusingly warps a number of gender-related clichés. As Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sits on top of a mountain she just hiked and peels off her boots and sock, we see that she has nearly ripped off the nail of her big toe, the bloody injury a slap back against patronizing mockery of women freaking out “just” for breaking a nail. Bracing herself, she tugs the last bit of the cuticle off her toe and sends a boot plummeting down the hill from the resulting spasm of pain, prompting her to throw the other one out of anger and scream. She is woman, hear her roar, but in the moment, she screams at her own damn stubbornness, and whatever impulse drove her to undertake all 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
If you haven’t read the real Strayed’s memoir, don’t worry: the the film wastes no time letting you know the impetus for her hike. Busy editing patterns chop up scenes of Cheryl roaming up the Pacific coast with flashbacks of her crumbling marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadoski), substance abuse issues and, above all, the trauma of losing her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), to cancer. Casting Witherspoon as Dern’s daughter despite the nine year age difference between the two is yet more Hollywood ageism, but dramatically it works to stress their relationship, which resembles, à la “Gilmore Girls,” a close friendship more than a traditional parent-child role. Seen in flashbacks attending college at the same time, Bobbi and Cheryl illustrate a generation gap between second- and third-wave feminism, and occasionally the friction between the two, as when Cheryl scoffs at her mother pausing her studies to cook for her grown brothers, or obliviously cutting her mom by saying she is so much more sophisticated at her age than Bobbi was.
The forthrightness of Cheryl’s feminism is a key aspect of her character, but the film only sporadically embodies her perspective. Vallée’s last film, Dallas Buyers Club, demonstrated the worst kind of appropriative liberalism, purporting to be an anguished cry against the legacy of LGBT discrimination while resolutely refusing to let that community speak with its own voice. Wild doesn’t suffer as badly in its view of feminism, but it is nonetheless split between twin poles on the subject. On the one hand, it exceptionally visualizes the unique worry that women face on these solitary hikes in addition to the fatigue, injury, dehydration and hunger that besets everyone. The difference, of course, is that the women must contend with men, who are either patronizing in their exaggerated admiration for her undertaking or far worse, not necessarily predatory but sufficiently forward that Cheryl often regards every man she meets on the trail with more wariness than she does the dangerous wildlife who roam the path.
On the other hand, frequent cutaways to Cheryl’s past, filled with gratuitous scenes of reckless, promiscuous sex, inadvertently portray her hike as, in part, a measure of atonement for her behavior. Witherspoon, so assured in capturing Cheryl’s resilient hiking or her presence of mind when dealing with people, looks utterly lost in flashback montages of licentious abandon, overplaying strung-out detachment to the point that she simply looks sleepy and bored in scenes of heroin use or group sex, as if the actress herself isn’t having any of the judgmental undercurrent of such scenes.
In the end, it’s hard not to think of the film as a domestic version of the spirit quests that tend to take place in some developing nation, with Cheryl finding herself somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The frantic editing, intended to be impressionistic but reductively symbolic in practice, forces every physical action to stand in for a memory that must either be preserved or overcome, bludgeoning the purpose of this trip into the audience’s skull and draining the sense of exertion and sheer will that it seeks to impart. (Thankfully, that effort lives on in Witherspoon’s exhausted face, which contains all the pain, self-doubt and overriding determination that the script rarely lets her express on her own.) I watched this film right after sitting down with Jennifer Kent’s exceptional debut The Babadook, another film that grounds the nebulous, complex feeling of guilt in the concrete. But where Kent’s movie gradually teased out its thematic footing on the back of its tactile unease, Vallée’s constantly refuses to let its present reality contain any nuance or ambiguity by incessantly underlining its fundamental purpose. Most upsettingly, this is a movie that splinters and manipulates the honest, searching performances of its two principal actresses according to the thematic shallowness of its male director.