An inspiration tale of a young woman who embarks on a long, perilous journey on foot, ushering in a new phase in her life and proving countless doubters wrong, featuring a strong, fearless central performance… Mia Wasikowska earned some modest praise for Tracks around the middle of last year. Playing true-life trekker Robyn Davidson, Wasikowska led camels across 1,700 miles of Australian outback, getting scuff-kneed and tastefully naked for the cause, and largely the world let the film come and go.
Wild sees Reese Witherspoon tackling similar trials as fellow true-lifer Cheryl Strayed, who abandoned her (messier) life to hike the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. A shorter journey in terms of miles, but, by all accounts, a weightier and loftier one than Wasikowska’s, as award nominations have dutifully fallen in Witherspoon’s wake. Equally scuff-kneed and less artfully naked, Witherspoon’s work here is good, running the gamut of emotions required of her by director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), but it doesn’t exactly outdo Wasikowska’s. Neither film is amazing, but put the two side-by-side and John Curran’s Tracks feels the less manipulative of its audience; more honest. And therefore better.
Which is not to say Wild is a bad film, but it sees Vallée following up the aforementioned Dallas Buyers Club with another concerted effort to play to a certain Academy-associated audience. True, Wild‘s production predates the success gifted upon Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto last March, yet it’s tough to shake the nagging sensation here that Vallée has an eye on his legacy already and is eager to capitalise on it.
But to the story at hand. Based on Nick Hornby’s script, Wild may follow Strayed on her dogged trek from point A to point B, but it certainly doesn’t apply the same rigor to chronology. We begin somewhere in the middle before flipping back to the start. Then just as eagerly Wild starts adding context by introducing plentiful flashbacks, each detailing another aspect of Strayed’s backstory, allowing us to understand further what has led to such a daring expedition. These tumble in at random, and while the transitions are carefully – even poetically – thought-out (aiming, one supposes, for the same sense-memory transportation of Benjy in The Sound And The Fury), the time jumping makes for a more muddled through-story. Add to that the frequency of these flashbacks and how they cut into Strayed’s 1995 hike, and it’s occasionally difficult to feel like we’re getting anywhere. Something almost criminal in, essentially, a road movie.
None of this makes Wild a failure, yet it dulls to a degree the film’s potential to be better than it is. The same goes for some of the rather heavy-handed moments, such as Strayed’s apparent ‘spirit animal’ discovery (linking back to her omnipresent mother – a game but brief Laura Dern) and her eleventh hour crying jag in the woods; evidently intended to evoke our own waterworks, but almost embarrassingly bereft of feeling. Perhaps worst of all is a lazy piece of narration tying up the film’s final scene, undercutting the one moment where silence would’ve said the most.
This is all sounding pretty negative, but in truth there’s just as much for all involved to feel good about. Witherspoon, as mentioned previously, does herself a solid here, and is not to blame for any of the moments when Wild feels like it hits a false note. And Vallée surrounds her with some top-notch day-players as the characters Strayed meets along the way, including W. Earl Brown as a potentially threatening but actually nice-as-pie farmer and Kevin Rankin as friendly fellow-hiker Greg. Mo McRae is also memorable in a mid-section scene played for laughs as a journalist mistaking Strayed for a hobo.
Witherspoon portrays Strayed as understandably cagey with all of the male strangers she encounters on her trip, and noticeably relieved at any female presence (aside from, of course, the ghost of her mother hiding behind fir trees). It’s an indictment of a woman’s ability to travel alone without harassment, but one that lives, very sadly, in the real world of 2015 as much as 1995.
Is Wild an empowering film? It seems so at times, but then at others it seems as though Strayed is putting herself through penance. I can’t help but think back to watching Tracks, and how Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson wasn’t escaping a bad life or searching for redemption, but rather proving something for herself. And ultimately, Strayed’s eureka moment, her diamond of self-discovery is stolen from her halfway through the movie when Laura Dern gets to say it in one of the film’s non-specific flashbacks. To paraphrase; regret nothing, because your life led you to the person you are.
If only she’d listened to her mother she could’ve saved carrying that laboriously heavy pack around.
But now I feel as though I’m just being mean. Wild is a good if somewhat flawed film. A love letter to the natural beauty of the American west, a high-five for the determination of the human spirit and a really good ad for a footwear company who will send you boots on the trail if yours are pinching.