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.

Tracks

Hey, Camel Lady

tracks

In Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays an Australian character in Australia.  We’ve certainly come a long way since Mad Max.

Tracks‘s introverted nature makes its achievements that much more profound.  Robyn (Wasikowska) procures several camels, says farewell to her (few) close relations, and sets out on a 1,700 mile trek across West Australia.  She and her dog, Diggity, whom she refers to as the greatest gift given to humans (never mind the fact that we created them through centuries of genetic meddling and inbreeding), make the entire trip on foot, never actually riding the camels.  Before she even begins the journey, Robyn is informed that Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a National Geographic photographer who probably fits this generation’s definition of “adorkable,” will meet up with her several times in order to satisfy the publication’s interest in her adventure.  Robyn wants to do this alone, but reluctantly agrees to the occasional meetings.

The film achieves a lot in the way of characterization early, not relying on outside knowledge of celebrity to fill in a voidlike silhouette.  Sparse flashbacks hint at the suicide of Robyn’s mother (a real-life event), but Robyn’s thematic voiceover (what’s with filmmakers having Mia Wasikowska do this all the time?) assures us that there’s no highfalutin reason for her journey.  She proves able to tame camels and use a rifle as well as any of the confident males who are paid to do the same, and begins her walk with no one’s help – in fact, the idea of those peppered occasions of human contact with Smolan seem to do the opposite of comforting her.

The film’s story movement remains consistently focused on Robyn’s progress, Robyn’s morale, Robyn’s sun-dried body, and especially Robyn’s mind.  Director John Curran, working from a tight screenplay by Marion Nelson, makes no attempt to contrive outside drama by showing the hype that generates from Robyn’s exploits; it’s all-too-well illustrated in the mobs of tourists who swerve off of desert roads to get a quick glance from the “Camel Lady” (a name Robyn appreciates about as much as Benny Siegel appreciated “Bugsy”).  There are the inevitable beats that may have been retroactively (read: post-real-life-adventure and memoir, pre-finished-screenplay) invented or placed – for example, Robyn is told by an experienced camel-wrangler that if she encounters a feral camel in the wild and hesitates to kill it, she’s toast.  Before she knows it, she’s got a slobbering monster charging her way with nothing but a barely-tested rifle to ensure that this story continues.  Already in possession of a hardened personality, however, Robyn’s actions as she’s faced with these increasingly dire (and sometimes horrific) tests are neither surprising nor synthetic.  Wasikowska carries every moment of the film as naturally as if this were a documentary (a vibe that the filmmakers are undoubtedly reaching for, given this story’s origins and previous forms in media), and the growth of Robyn as a character never feels stage-managed.

It’s difficult not to give a film like this a feminist reading, but it almost hurts to call it a “feminist film,” simply for the reason that it should not be a shock when there’s a story about an independent woman who does something alone because she wants to.  Robyn decides to make this journey alone.  No one makes her.  Furthermore, she actually succeeds at what she sets out to do with little discussion about what biological snafus might prevent her from doing so (apart from having to adhere to native practices regarding this-and-that out in the places where travelers require guides).  She hooks up with Smolan once, and anyone with a basic sex drive can figure out why.  The next morning, when the heart-of-gold Smolan (with all of Adam Driver’s goofy charm) clumsily attempts to attach some strings, Robyn wants none of this chivalry, and on one of those rare occasions in film, the woman is not criticized for rebuffing a dude’s advances or accused of “playing with his feelings.”  As emotionally confused as Smolan might be, he gets it.  So should you.

The film also makes use of actual Australian natives in the roles of themselves, including the significant speaking role of Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), who acts as a part-time guide in accordance with regional tradition.  Here, Curran has dodged yet another Western film trapping: using any old non-white person to play any old non-white ethnicity (for example, Native Americans played by pretty much anyone [including Johnny Depp], actors of various Eastern European descent playing “Arabs,” etc.).  This, combined with on-location shooting and natural characterization/plot movement at the expense of heightened drama, serves to create a work of incredible authenticity.

Tracks will inevitably be compared to (and unfortunately overshadowed by) Oscar Season’s Wild, another one-word-title, female explorer film based in reality, and I will doubtless be comparing them once I get to see it, but here’s my suggestion: let’s not stand them against each other.  Let’s not continue to think of films about brave, indomitable women as novelties, or worse, as a “genre.”  Let’s not read reviews of such films with the intention of only seeing one.  Let’s understand that the intrepid, courageous woman is not a character trope.  She’s reality, and she’s not going away.

Tracks (2014); based on the book by Robyn Davidson; written by Marion Nelson; directed by John Curran; starring Mia Wasikowska.

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