Wild

You’re a woman!

WildWild, based upon Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, has all the makings of 1) a heroic self-acceptance tale, and 2) an Oscar-winning film.  In the first five minutes, we get gruesome suspense, body horror, Reese Witherspoon topless, endearing humor, and lots of cussing.  It’s the type of underdog story that the Academy loves, but it’s riskier and more dangerous than any of the year’s contenders because not only does it have a female hero, but it makes no effort to portray her as a synthetic ingénue whose purity cannot be pierced.  Here, we have a three-dimensional, decision-making person with recognizable foibles, which is to say a real person.  I suppose it helps that she is a real person.

Cheryl, played by Witherspoon, walks away from scrambled memories of divorce, drug use, destructive sexual escapades, and the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s clear from the start that she has not trained for this: she does not pack enough food, carries plenty of supplies she doesn’t need (which causes fellow hikers to refer to her pack as “monster”) has no clue how to ignite her camping stove, and her tent is far too large (which is probably a filmmaking flub, not a commentary on Cheryl as a greenhorn).  Gradually, events are revealed as they happened, and Cheryl’s perilous journey becomes a quest not to “redeem” herself for acting out (as Strayed has put it herself on plenty of occasions), but to come to terms with her experiences, and hopefully, to move forward.

Unlike Tracks with Mia Wasikowska earlier this year, Wild is more about Cheryl’s reasons for making the trek than the trek itself.  There is not much “hiking” to speak of in the film – there’s some walking up hills, some climbing over rocks, some ambling through the expected assortment of wilderness tile-sets (green forest, hot expanse of sand, snowy plains, and even rundown suburban road), but the film gives us the Hollywood version of the hike, and the one that appeals to this generation of filmgoers: the version that doesn’t take up much time or get bogged down in actual details.  Instead, the home drama drives the film toward its goal while the hike serves as the parable/myth: Chery’s feet are bruised, then bloodied, then broken, then stripped of boots (protection), then repaired by hand with Cheryl’s resourcefulness and improvisation, and then finally, last we see them, they’re in brand new boots.  She displays her foot injuries to other hikers to show how far she’s come.  There are animals and children deliberately placed to evoke certain somethings in an audience (and I say “deliberately placed” as in the filmmakers using elements of Strayed’s real-life narrative to cleverly, albeit sometimes predictably, perpetuate its own themes). There’s even a symbolic fox whom Cheryl initially begs to “come back” and is eventually able to let go.

The film’s core emotion is fear.  In the broad sense, it’s the fear of not succeeding, that Cheryl’s journey will yield nothing but hunger and exhaustion.  Cheryl’s biggest threat in the wilderness is not wild animals (in fact, she barely meets any, other than a spooked rattlesnake, a caterpillar, a horse, and a domesticated alpaca), but the men she comes into contact with.  There is a clever mislead early on when a farmer (W. Earl Brown) promises to give her a ride, then says he’s bringing her back to his place for dinner and a hot shower, just after Cheryl finds a pistol in his truck.  When they arrive, the man’s wife is home, having prepared a meal, and while the man has some antiquated ideas about what women should be “allowed” to do, his intentions are completely benevolent.  This scene isn’t just a good mislead; it plants a seed that stays with us: throughout the rest of the film, we’re just waiting for an aggressive pervert to show up and antagonize Cheryl for real. This happens in the form of two hunters who amuse themselves by directing rape jokes at Cheryl and later making very real threats (which one of them considers to be harmless flattery), and Cheryl stands her ground.  It’s a vital scene because it forces the audience, regardless of gender, to inhabit the receiving end of the dangerous “Can’t a guy give a woman a compliment?” attitude/behavior that threatens and victimizes so many in our current culture.

Wild‘s feminism is evident in its premise alone, just as it was in Tracks: a woman leaves it all behind to find herself in the wilderness, and survives conditions that would have made Hemingway shudder (as would the assertion that roughing it in the bush could be anything other than a “manly” pursuit).  In fact, a male hiker Cheryl befriends (Kevin Rankin) quits the trek after mentioning how rigorously he trained for it.  Cheryl is already an activist and an avid reader, but the idea of feminism is continuously denormalized, particularly in a scene wherein a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) mistakes Cheryl for a hobo and mentions that there are “almost no female hobos,” treating Cheryl, along with her ideas about the responsibilities heaped upon women vs. the fact that very few women are reckless adventurers, as novelties.  Later, a group of young male hikers refer to Cheryl as their hero.  These incidents (and the fact that they’re not just movie fabrications) make Cheryl’s eventual triumph all the more gratifying.

I’m tempted to mention that Robyn Davidson’s completely-on-foot journey across Australia involved no home-cooked meals, bus rides, or prolonged human contact (not to mention being deep-fried by the sun), but these films really should not be stacked against each other.  Both stories deal with big decisions, solitude, and identity.  Both involve lost parents and the execution of a beloved pet, and the hardships that come with those for emotional, thinking people.  Robyn and Cheryl are both incredible role models and vital figures in his/herstory, and these films are continuing (and more importantly, helping to normalize) the tradition of the empowered, independent female hero, and of depicting this character as a person, not an archetype, something that the Brontës had to hide their identities to do, and that Kate Chopin’s work was ostracized for.  Things that matter: you’re not gonna get them from Clint Eastwood.

Wild (2014); based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; screenplay by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

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