Jean Marc Vallée came in from Canada’s cold with the red hot reception of 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club. Shooting Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey from irrelevance to a fresh phase of fame. Shooting drugs too. In Wild, the onscreen realisation of Cheryl Strayed’s Pacific Crest trail memoirs, it is heroine; back in Dallas, there was cocaine. Alongside the drug trade, there is a change of disease too: McConaughey’s HIV for Mom’s cancer. Both represent filmic explorations of b-side Americana. Vallée swaps Texas for Minnesota: south for north. Dallas Buyers Club took the director south to LA (via Texas), Wild sees a return north to Canada (via Portland). It is a quieter, more contemplative follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club that draws more attention from its star than its media spotlight.
Unfortunately, the source material is more of a sparse, desert, literally. We wander alongside Witherspoon’s Cheryl as she completes the Pacific Crest Train in search of that allusively holistic and abstract ‘something more’. For the screenplay, Hornby tries to transform the memoirs from a slight, overly self-absorbed nothingness to a fable for all. This proves futile, as life lessons learned stick sweatily to the script like a walking sock in Cali’s forty degree summer. However, the cinematography, from Yves Bélanger, and Vallée’s direction are the saviour, merging a malaise of memory into a melange of dream and reality; a glimmer of creative genius within an otherwise uninspiring ‘inspirational’ film. It adds life and vigour through its constantly changing lens, thus energising a problematical sell: the slow motion ‘road movie’ or pedestrian road trip.
Witherspoon plays three Cheryls: donning a lovely goldilocks innocence for the young woman, a snarling indecency to the lost soul of the streets and a thoughtful trudger through the west coast expanse of the trail. The concoction of life and lie, fact and memory, mix the three eras to perfect effect. These draw from childhood, adolescence, her mother’s cancer treatment and the ensuing despair. They offer a confusion and beauty to Wild through its endless flitting between times. Instead of being a distraction, it is, alongside the endless expanse of landscape, the film’s bedrock and its most lasting impression beyond the unbridled excitement of walking.
Unfortunately, this is undercut by the coy, cutesy onscreen aid of the fox. Like a Potter patronus it is a facsimile too far that feels more disney than real world. Leaving the erroneously ambiguous final scene: does she marry the fox? This is unnecessary considering that the fox is a zoomorphic allegory for the relationship with her mother and the restoration of the soul through the drudgery of the trudge. The CGI is terrible so you really do have to be tripping from extended dehydration or iodine pills to believe this unreality.
So back to reality with Gravity. There is an essence of one woman vs the world that resonates with Sandra Bullock’s space odyssey in 2013’s success story. The existentialist thread is laid bare, only in the rather less remarkable circumstances of California and Oregon, not orbit. There is no warm, cuddly shot of Clooney Nespresso, either. Instead, Wild is shot like a horror film. We enter the narrative with toe curling toenail agony, Strayed’s naked foot dripping blood from too tight boots. Meanwhile, Witherspoon’s giant backpack is the only comedic event, offering a light slapstick and farce to an otherwise overly officious film. It is the shuttle that parachutes in a whole barrage of threats.
These come thick and fast with the face of Middle Aged American Man. For a book from a feminist, the film feels more like a reaffirmation of the american stereotype that Dallas Buyers Club fought so hard to counter through McConaughey’s majestic lead. Men pop out of forests and into bushes, rattling like snakes of lust ready to snatch our heroine. She’s a woman in a man’s environment.The enemy is man in combination with nature; the beast let loose in the wild. And they want her; though only one condom, and one man get a night with the newly angelic, celibate Cheryl. However, the threat of rape, both classical and modern, looms large in the subtext. She is an Eve with a whole host of Adams on the Pacific Crest Trail Garden of Eden. And only a single apple ripe for plucking.
Like the bible, this Eden ends abruptly. Leaving an audience exiting the cinema as does a class only to realise there was nothing learnt or dying before finding the light. The light of life is Wild’s crux. The Bridge of the Gods, to which Cheryl must divert to complete the route, is a cheesy end point that might seem perfectly symbolic in writing, but fatally flawed in its onscreen obviousness. As we depart from the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, it is a wasted two hour hitchhike on the back of a fairly standard woman going through a bloated, boring life event. Momentous only in its few and far between moments of creative innovation, granted by the direction and Bélanger’s sharply enticing cinematography. Witherspoon’s lead enables the credibility of the interwoven narrative that would fall flat with a lesser performance. We see the return of Cheryl’s joie de vivre and raison d’être, but Wild is merely ça va and nothing more.