Friday, January 2, 2015

Using A Departed Maternal Soul As A Means To Guide Her Own

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in "Wild", directed by Jean-Marc Vallee.
  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, January 2, 2015

Related: Analyzing one troubling scene

Cheryl Strayed went through the roughest patches in her life: the loss of her mother to cancer, a divorce, heroin addiction, and bouts, sexual and otherwise, with men, some of them abusive.  She escaped them all and confronted her self-destructive ways, and her late mother.  

Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild" opens with Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) alone as a feral Eve in a very different Garden of Eden.  The celestial is instead rugged -- a mountainous area of the Pacific Northwest.  This new Eve is fully-clothed, with actual and metaphorical baggage, yet naked.  She pulls out her big toenail.  Cheryl bares her wounds, including divorcee tattoos, as of a history of her life.  The wounds are Cheryl's physical roadmaps.  Portraiture. 

The Pacific Crest Trail is Cheryl's grueling 1,100-mile obstacle course odyssey that took the real-life Ms. Strayed from the California Mojave to the Washington State border.  The Trail is Cheryl's revisiting of Mother Earth, or, more precisely, a grieving, revisiting and rediscovery of her own mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern evocatively in an array of often haunting flashbacks.

Bobbi and Cheryl's relationship, not unlike others between mothers and their adolescent or early 20-something daughters, is tenuous, tense and awkward.  Bobbi is a happy free-spirited optimist whose life is tortured by an abusive husband.  The precocious Cheryl is impatient and angry at Bobbi for this and a perceived betrayal and abandonment.  Both interact tentatively as students at the same college.  "I'm sorry I ignored you at school today," Cheryl says when at home.  (You sense she isn't too sorry.)  Their interactions, at home and school, are borne of necessity rather than choice.  "If there's one thing I can teach you it's how to find your best self and how to hold onto it for dear life."  It's the most important advice Cheryl will ever get.

In "Wild", a jagged, visceral experience filled with naturalism and human frailty, the forests of the Trail look like beautiful but foreboding woods, where one brave woman is hiking and flying blind but making her stand.  "I didn't even know where I was going until I got there," Cheryl confesses, in one of many voice-over narrations taken from her vivid memoir.  Cheryl determinedly hikes on, come hell, high water or no water.  She digs in doggedly, commingling with animalized forms of her own vices and demons: snakes, deer, and everything else she may experience.  Cheryl's ex-husband reinforces the abusive atmosphere she grew up in.  The men she encounters along the Trail are all potential post-traumatic markers. 

"Wild" plunges us into personal tribute, intimacy, starkness, addiction, longing, sex and identity.  It could be said to by some to be a feminist chronicle -- and Ms. Strayed personally identifies as a feminist -- but I'm not sure "Wild" as an accounting of her story necessarily is.  I'm wary of instantly characterizing something as feminist, but "Wild", if nothing else, stands on its own as an affirmation of a brave woman's introspection and reconciliation with her departed mother. 

Ms. Witherspoon's pluckiness on film has thoroughly dissipated in recent years (including in "Mud").  The sanguine tone in some earlier roles has transformed to a sullenness and focused grit that's refreshing.  Yet Ms. Witherspoon has long displayed a sharpness and power, even in such early work as "Election", where a character's cerebral strengths prevailed.  Some of that is present in "Wild", albeit muted by a struggle to overcome.  This Trail swallows up many of its gaudiest candidates. 

The Oscar-winner gives an open, naked and courageous performance that stays true to the spirit and honesty of Cheryl Strayed and her odyssey through the Pacific Crest Trail.  Ms. Witherspoon is all parts granite and grit as Cheryl, and gives her an acute awareness.  Ms. Witherspoon has matured into an adaptable, formidable presence on the big screen.  It's fair enough to say that she should be taken far more seriously than she has over the years, Oscar or not.  She spits vanity and pretense out and gets Cheryl down to the bone. 

I wish, however, that the film's objectives had consistently been as consonant as Ms. Witherspoon with their own commitment to Ms. Strayed.  "Wild" spends much time -- and it should rightly spend some time -- immersing you in the very real dangers a woman faces isolated in the vast expanses of a nature palace of uncontrolled, potentially rabid men.  Yet it overloads its rough terrain with Cheryl's male encounters both on and off the Trail.  "Wild" tamps down Cheryl's reclamation of her own agency, making it expendable, by instead utilizing the male involvement in her experiences more than investing in Cheryl's search for self-identity.  The latter was lacking in "Wild".

Much of the film's aural language, shaped by the editing of John Mac McMurphy and Martin Presa, captures Cheryl's roar and its reverberations but not nearly enough of her core or self-empowerment.  Sometimes "Wild" feels more like a meditation on rebellion than a study of empowerment, connection and independence, which again, as told via Nick Hornby's screenplay and Mr. Vallee's direction, is somewhat compromised through the male gaze.

One of the few women Cheryl meets on the trail says the things that validate Cheryl's experience -- "I came out here to find myself" -- but it's Cheryl herself who should be saying those things.  Cheryl knows who she is as she's lost on the Trail.  Cheryl's quest is to determine who and what defines her.  Is it her mother?  Herself?  The Trail?  The men she randomly encounters and experiences?  All of the above? 

Granted, men populate "Wild" in abundance but are they all Cheryl saw in her world?  (The film leaves you a distinct impression of yes.)  How does Cheryl relate to other women vis-a-vis her mother?  How does Cheryl connect to womanhood and connect that womanhood to her own sense of self?  To her mother?  The answers to some or all of these questions are missing in "Wild" but worse, they are barely asked. 

Ms. Witherspoon fearlessly bares Cheryl's scars, her soul, her vices and her anger.  She's a lone wolf, sniffed by predatory male wolves, threatened to be hunted and penned into an inglorious spot.  This repetitive specter of male danger, while authentic, is, for the film's sake maddening, even distracting, as is a scene that shot me out of the film like a cannon: a black male driver suddenly appears a split-second after Cheryl sarcastically asks to be raped and dismembered. 

This subliminal association of the film's sole Black character with a rapist or potential rapist, consonant with a long film history of racist stereotyping of Black men that reverts to "Birth Of A Nation", was as powerful and off-putting to me as some of the editing that substitutes for Cheryl's hard-lined adversity.  Worse, this misplaced scene with the Black character and Cheryl is played for laughs about a Hobo Times interview, which, given the film's seriousness, was a bad attempt at comic relief.

"Wild" is shot well by Yves Belanger, but Mr. Vallee, a music video director by trade, has stripped true stories of their core before.  Take "Dallas Buyers Club", where its trans character was appropriated in a clichéd, theatrical way for mainstreamed, hetero audience comfort.  That film, like this one, had only its two good performances going for it.  But in film, performance alone isn't enough.  A soul and a focused destination, especially when navigating a trek as troubled and perilous as Cheryl Strayed's, was, deserved more boldness.

Also with: Thomas Sadoski.

"Wild", now playing in the U.S. and Canada, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.  Its running time is one hour and 56 minutes.

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