Following up on the great success of his previous film (2013's "Dallas Buyer's Club"), Jean-Marc Vallée is back with a new drama called "Wild". Like the former, it's yet another character study of a real life individual, but it poses a wholly different set of challenges. Focusing on a single character's lonesome journey, Vallée proves that he's willing to continue testing his own storytelling abilities.
"Wild" is the adaptation of "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail", a memoir by Cheryl Strayed. In this film, Strayed is played by Reese Witherspoon, who relives Strayed's ambitious trek through the Pacific Crest Trail. Throughout the 1,100-mile journey, we see various flashbacks into Strayed's life as we learn more about the experiences which lead her to take this hike. For her, it was a necessary course of action to ease the physical and emotional pain that resulted from the heartbreaking loss of her mother (played by Laura Dern).
The film's plot synopsis may not immediately jump out as anything particularly ambitious but on closer engagement, it's clear that "Wild" is one of the more daring filmmaking endeavours of the year. Conceptually, it brings up various questions. How do you set a film in nature without appearing like a Malick rip-off? How do you make an existential narrative not seem contrived? How do you make a lonesome trek exciting?
To address these questions, Vallée - with the help of scribe Nick Hornby - make some astute choices. In terms of avoiding any Malick-esque tendencies, the film firmly places the focus on Strayed and her human relationships. In doing so, it's unsentimental in its expression of the natural world. The cinematography never indulges in overly attractive "postcard" imagery, with barely any lingering shots of the environment. Rather, it highlights the harshness of the environment (blistering heat, rugged terrain, dangerous animals) and the difficulties Strayed faces along the way.
Stylistically, the flashback format introduces an intriguing "stream of consciousness" element to the present day plot. As such, it brings depth to a narrative that boldly refuses to adhere to the rules of the "existential crisis" film. Specifically, the wandering trip isn't conceived as something life-changing. It's more akin to a timeout used to regroup during a gruelling stretch in the game of life. This refreshing approach strips the film of any lofty ambitions of redemption, allowing the viewer to engage with the character in a more intimate level.
Of all its positive attributes, the best is perhaps the casting of Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. As noted earlier, this is first and foremost a human story and therefore requires characters that you can engage with. In Witherspoon and Dern, this is never an issue, as they both bring a strong level of authenticity that surpasses what's written for the characters. Dern makes full use of her small role as Cheryl's ailing mother (affected by cancer), effortlessly conveying a woman of unwavering warmth and benevolence. In particular, the way she puts on a brave face for her children (despite a torrid relationship with Cheryl's father and her eventual illness) is instantly empathetic and recognizable.
Similarly, Witherspoon also pulls off the tricky balance of portraying a character who's vulnerable but also possesses willful determination. The role serves as a strong reminder of her movie star screen presence, as she's completely captivating despite giving a very lived-in, understated performance. It's an unglamourous role with a caustic edge which gives the film much of its humour (through the acknowledgement of her lack of hiking experience), as well as its more harrowing character beats (through her history of self-destructive behavior). Together, Dern and Witherspoon elevate the material, filling in their roles with subtle actorly details and taking the script to a place of earthly grace and complexity.
Unfortunately, this same inspired script eventually succumbs to some of the temptation to reach for a profound endpoint. In a film with a more defined narrative arc, this would have been a nice poetic touch. In this case however, it becomes the only significant drawback in an otherwise impressively restrained film. Still, this is ultimately a satisfying story when you consider its pleasant journey rather than its uncertain destination.
"Wild" seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of the Oscar conversation and thus, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay seem like its only hopes. There may be a possibility of a Best Picture nomination, but the chances are slim to none. With voting about to close, its fate has already been decided. So we'll just have to wait and see where it lands.