Grieving pilgrim's wild days in the wilderness

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Wild (MA). Director: Jean-Marc Vallée. Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski. 115 minutes

Last year, the Australian film Tracks recreated Robyn Davidson's 1978 trek, 2700km overland from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Cinematographically sublime — rendering vast, claustrophobic space, and grey-green scrub against yellow sand and white-hot sun — what the film possessed in mysticism it lacked in basic human insight. Its Robyn was an enigma, her motivation all but inscrutable.

Wild shares Tracks’ evocation of awesome wilderness — in this case, the rugged, mountainous wilds of California and Oregon — but is rooted in its hero’s humanity. It is based on Cheryl Strayed’s account of her solo 1600-plus km trek along America’s Pacific Crest Trail, and makes of her endeavour a kind of expurgatory quest; a march to the transcendent inner spaces beyond guilt and desolation.

Cheryl (as portrayed here by Witherspoon) is haunted by her past — by her own sins, and by tragedies that have befallen her. These come to us in fragments; as Cheryl walks, she hums, and the music she hears in her head leads her in and out of the past. Cleverly, director Vallée bends the film’s soundtrack to Cheryl’s march-and-hum, helping to frame and intensify these often painful memories.

Her mother (Dern) and her ex-husband, Paul (Sadoski) feature regularly in these memories. The true significance of these two figures is revealed only gradually. Certainly, Cheryl has done wrong, and is trying to atone. But why is Paul, whom she has treated so poorly, so supportive when she speaks to him on the phone? And why are her memories of her mother so steeped in almost mawkish nostalgia?

The trek is, of course, pointedly, a metaphor for Cheryl’s life. Each hardship she overcomes brings her a step closer to facing down the fierce regrets that gnash at her heels. This is a timeless storytelling device that might seem trite, if not for Nick Hornby’s poignant, funny screenplay, Vallée’s elegant direction, and the vast wellspring of quietly turbulent emotion Witherspoon brings to the role.

Cheryl seems out of her depth almost from the get-go; she battles with a ludicrously overstuffed backpack, brings the wrong kind of fuel for her portable stove, and struggles to erect a simple dome tent. We are invited to laugh at these misadventures, but we also root for her. Like all of us, she is on a journey from naivety to experience. She seems visibly to grow with each new lesson learnt.

She benefits greatly from the kindness of strangers. After a shaky start to her trek, she is forced to put herself at the mercy of a farmer whom she comes across on a deserted back road. Finding her at her most vulnerable, he treats her with the utmost generosity. In fact with one frightening exception, Cheryl finds the majority of the people she meets on and around the trail in to be similarly generous.

It is a decidedly upbeat view of humanity, and it is this, perhaps more than anything, that helps lead Cheryl out of the wilderness and to a place of contentment with herself, her world, and the other flawed human beings who inhabit it.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Wild, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Jean-Marc Vallée



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim, your review has helped me place my own thoughts about the film. A beautifully exploratory piece. Cheers
James O'Brien | 29 January 2015


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