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Monday, December 1, 2014

Reese Witherspoon's WILD Leaves a Big Question Unanswered

It's been a week since I've seen WILD starring Reese Witherspoon and I am still struggling to come up with some thoughts about it. It's not that it's a complicated watch; it's actually a rather simple story, and not even a particularly fresh one. A woman on a tumultuous downward spiral goes on a sabbatical from her life presumably to regain a passion for it. If it sounds familiar, then perhaps you've also seen Eat, Pray, Love, whose heroine goes on a similar soul search. (Must be nice to be able to just log off life for a bit to recharge the ole batteries).

But instead of travelling the world to find herself as Julia Roberts does in Eat, Witherspoon's Cheryl Strayed flees far away from who she's become, consumed by sex, drugs and self-inflicted wounds (of both the emotional and physical variety), only to throw herself into another possibly life-threatening situation -- an 1,000 + mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. But is she ultimately trying to end her life, or find it? Is she trying to push herself to the brink, or is this yet another desperate cry for help? What makes a woman like Cheryl, who proves within the first few moments of the film that she's the prototypical "tough chick" who is not known to account for her transgressions, finally want to invest in her life again -- by way of a laborious trek?

This rather important question isn't really answered in the film. Even more frustrating, the question is actually posed early on, by Cheryl's ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), but by the closing credits we're no closer to finding the answer. Instead, WILD takes us on a two-hour journey through the slippery mountains and beyond as we watch our heroine, determined as ever to finish her trek, ward off heartbreaking memories of her late mother (Laura Dern), frivolous extramarital affairs and horrific drug binges. Though these stories are presented as mere flashbacks, they provide far more insight into Cheryl's character than the film's present narrative, which struggles thematically.

In fact, I kinda wanted WILD to linger in the past a little longer than it does simply so I can feel more connected to Cheryl (and watch Witherspoon prove my theory that she is far more compelling in darker roles). The thing is, we spend so much time with her alone, with the occasional passerby, yet we still don't know who she is today. And maybe that's what this journey is supposed to be about, Cheryl discovering herself, but that doesn't happen by the final credits. Like many other things that have led up to this moment, Cheryl's propensity to evade purpose gets in the way again. But if there's no intent, how do we know, and how does Cheryl, know if she's succeeded?

But despite its unclear message, there is a certain charm to WILD that smooths away its thorny exterior to reveal a broken character, whose humbling journey eventually leads to her buckling at a sweet song sung by a young boy she meets in the wilderness. It is by far the most tender moment in the film that I wish would have inspired more self-reflection, but, as Cheryl quotes Robert Frost in the film, there are miles to go before she sleeps -- and redemption is simply not a stop she's willing to make right now.

I still feel that director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) doesn't really have a distinctive style, which makes it difficult to interpret his point of view as a filmmaker (in this case it could have also muddled the delivery of the film a bit). But kudos to him as well as screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education), who adapted the film from Strayed's own memoir, for bringing a story about a woman who is really the only character in the film (how many times have we've seen male actors like Tom Hanks and James Franco star in films like this?). Hopefully this will open up the doors for other female stories.

Rating: C+ (*** out of *****)

WILD opens in New York City and Los Angeles December 3rd, and in select additional cities December 5th.

Watch the trailer:


Brittani Burnham said...

The only part about Wild that I'm really looking forward to is Thomas Sadoski, but I suspect he's only in it for 1 or 2 scenes. Otherwise I'm not dying to see this. Nice review!

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