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.

Dallas Buyers Club

‘Cause you’ve only got one

dallasFew of us are enlightened by the fact that the FDA is an organization interested only in profit and control.  That said, one unfortunate aspect of Dallas Buyers Club, a character study of Matthew McConaughey’s version of the real-life Ron Woodroof – a Texas cowboy unexpectedly diagnosed with HIV – is that the most moving scenes are spoiled by the marketing, a fact made more unfortunate in that a film so greatly lauded turns out to be surprisingly formulaic and sentimental.  If not for the cursing and occasional groping, it could air on ABC’s family night.

None of this is to discount the very real struggles depicted therein, nor the performances.  Woodroof, after his diagnosis, meets Dr. Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner), who tells him about the only FDA-approved drug suitable for treating AIDS: AZT.  He bribes another hospital employee to get him the meds, only to realize that AZT (in conjunction with his cocaine use) is detrimental to his health.  When the deal with the employee falls through, Ron drives to Mexico to get more AZT from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), who tells him that AZT is essentially poison.  He prescribes Ron peptide T and ddC, drugs unapproved by the FDA, and Ron finds that his health quickly improves.  He lives far past the 30-day death sentence given to him by the hospital, and quickly realizes that he can make money and help people by importing these drugs and selling them to other HIV-positive patients.

Enter Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman, also HIV-positive, who befriends Ron in the hospital and eventually becomes his partner in the “Dallas Buyers Club.”  The remainder of the film involves the successes and struggles of the Buyers Club, culminating in the all-powerful (and seemingly omnipotent) FDA shutting them down, as well as the characters’ respective battles against the knowledge that they do not have long to live.  Rayon and Ron form a reluctant partnership that transmogrifies, perhaps too quickly even given the constraints of a two-hour narrative, into a rather sweet friendship.  Rayon gets a pretty nice share of the narrative later on, as we get a glimpse at his relationship with his father, who has all but disowned him and can say nothing complimentary aside from “I guess I should thank you for wearing men’s clothes.”

The disjointedness of the narrative speaks volumes to the conflicts of the characters: here are people who can never be sure, at any single moment, what turn their health will take, and are essentially waiting for terrible things to happen to them.  The plot movement closely mirrors this “day-to-day-ness,” linked only by a mechanical squealing in Ron’s head that bookends the entire story and threads important moments together (sometimes functioning as an easy transition effect).

Leto’s performance as Rayon has received endless accolades, and for good reason, and the performance itself and the decision to place a transgender character in a big-budget movie (the first time I can remember this happening) completely warrant them.  But a close viewing reveals something a bit sad: Rayon’s existence in the story serves no purpose other than to help Ron get over his homophobia.  Rayon’s time and amount of focus in the film do not even gain him the status of deuteragonist; he functions as the “manic pixie dream girl” who helps the man come to terms with his issues before disappearing (in this case because he’s the film’s sacrificial lamb, which also serves to motivate one of Ron’s big decisions).  This character, not to mention this story, deserves better than that.  Rayon’s potential is limitless and his appeal undeniable to anyone with half a heart and a fraction of a sense of adventure (has anyone looked more beautiful dancing badly onscreen than Leto in this?)  If scenes like the one between Rayon and his father were more numerous and came earlier (or were at least more evenly balanced with Ron’s), we’d have a more fleshed-out family of characters here.  Instead, we have a traditional “guy gets over his issues after meeting good people” story, going from referring to Rayon as “whatever the fuck you are” to embracing him in a long, genuine hug.  The film is rife with deliberate imagery (could the bull rides from the opening and final shots be any more obvious in their joint purpose?), which only hammers in the shopworn theme of “one man overcomes adversity,” a dish the Academy is devouring this year.

The film is worth seeing once for the quality of McCoughnahey’s, Leto’s, and Jennifer Garner’s performances, and its treatment of HIV-positive characters.  I’m not sure it warranted McCoughnahey’s protracted speech about Neptune, though.

Dallas Buyers Club (2013); written by Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Matthew McCoughnahey, Jared Leto, and Jennifer Garner.