Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon in the hard-charging yet contemplative drama Wild.

Author's note: This is a review I let lie fallow for over two months. I saw Wild back in early January; it was one of the first films I saw in the New Year. The film has stuck with me so strongly that I would rank it among the top two or three films that I have seen in 2015 so far, along with Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and Jennifer Kent's terrific low-budget horror film The Babadook. Thus I present to you my belated review of Wild, more or less as I wrote (but never posted) it back in January:

Wow! I just saw Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild in the theater a few weeks ago, and wow! The film really blew me away. It was intense, dramatic, and yet at the same time contemplative -- kind of like a harrowing character study in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas fused with a meditative and soulful film like Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy.

To be fair, I went into Wild expecting to like it. I enjoyed Vallee's previous film, Dallas Buyers Club, quite a bit, especially for its performances, and while that film wasn't perfect, after reading this article about the director's methods, I suspected that he would really deliver the goods on this Reese Witherspoon showcase.

Vallee's moviemaking style involves "natural lighting, a skeletal crew ready to capture spontaneous moments, and no rehearsal." 

And indeed, the goods are delivered, by crew and actors alike. Witherspoon is terrific in the lead role, playing as understated a part as I have ever seen her assay. The film, with a well-adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby, is not dialogue heavy: most of the important stuff is conveyed by Witherspoon's facial expressions and body language, or else via the film's remarkable editing and sound design. Dramatizing Cheryl Strayed's post-divorce three-month solo trek north along the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild unfolds its protagonist's back story via intermittent flashbacks, most of which involve Cheryl's relationship with her mother, played by Laura Dern. Dern gives a career-topping performance as this deeply flawed but ultimately noble (perhaps too saintly as we see her through Cheryl's eyes?) character.

As this online article argues,
Wild was one of the best American movies of the year. It was quietly revolutionary in its focus on one woman’s doggedly personal tale. It should have been a huge hit instead of a minor one, and it should have been a bigger part of the Best Picture conversation. That it wasn’t reflects some unhappy truths about the way the academy, and Hollywood at large, view women’s stories.
Just so. I have discussed the unequal representation of women in Hollywood before, so won't retread that ground here, but I must say that I am really bowled over by the lack of awards-season attention Wild is getting. It is head-and-shoulders a better movie than The Imitation Game and I also strongly suspect that it is better than The Theory of Everything even though I haven't seen that one.*

It may be that both gender inequities AND generic expectations play a role in Wild's seeming lack of cultural cachet (and Oscar noms) relative to its more formulaic contemporaries. Surely Mr. Turner suffers from the same problem, being a biopic that doesn't really feel anything like a standard biopic. Both Wild and Turner zero in on a brief period in their respective subjects' lives, dropping the viewer into the period quite dramatically in medias res. No complicated backstory or explanation of the character's earlier days is given. No subtitles whisk us through a montage of the character growing up, going to school, etc.

That said, Wild does, like its protagonist, fixate upon the figure of Cheryl's lost mother, thereby illuminating aspects of Cheryl's earlier life -- but all from her own (volatile, fragmented) point of view. The film's jumpy flashback structure makes it feel more like a thriller at times than a typical "life story" type biopic.

The film's subjective, thrillerish edge is complimented by Witherspoon's hard-charging performance as Cheryl. Kathleen Karlyn has written about the ambivalence at the core of Witherspoon's star persona and onscreen roles, an uncompromising feminist unruliness perhaps best embodied in her performance of Tracy Flick in 1999's Election.** I teach this film to undergraduate Film Theory students every semester and it never fails to elicit at least a few reactionary responses from viewers (mostly young men) who see Tracy as the despicable villain of the piece. These students usually don't quite "get" the darkly comic and ironic tone of Election or pick up on its critique of Matthew Broderick's under-achieving Jim McAllister. Many students miss that Witherspoon's portrayal of Flick exposes "the anxieties women with ambition, intelligence, and drive raise in men struggling to redefine masculinity in the postfeminist age."***

Reese Witherspoon threatens Matthew Broderick's masculinity in Election (1999).

Films about complex, ambivalent, nuanced, non-stereotypical women are going to feel unusual and confrontational and uncomfortable to many of us at first, conditioned as we are to the norms of patriarchal cinema and culture. Witherspoon's gutsy portrayal of an imperfect female character in Wild is just the kind of thing we need more of in Hollywood.

If I have any critique of Wild at all, it is that two of the men Cheryl encounters in her travels are portrayed as backwoods hicks and potential rapists, and while I understand that the film is based on a real-life memoir, I still felt uneasy about the Deliverance-style vilification of rural folk in those scenes. Framing them as sinister hicks seemed an easy way to get us to fear them, and I wonder if the real-life Cheryl Strayed's memory of these two is exaggerated or condensed in some way in the book and/or film versions. Yet that uncertainty, which comes from delving deep into character subjectivity, is one of the great strengths of this (or almost any) movie. Wild dares to show us a character at her rawest and most incomprehensible to herself, depicting in vivid yet imperfect detail the grief process of a woman we may not completely like. Wild tells the story of someone who may not be fully aware of some of the ways in which she is privileged (and her resistance to the word "hobo" is genuinely hilarious). Yet finally Wild depicts the story of a person in transition, a person making discoveries about herself as we watch and participate. It is exhilarating.  

Wild is something unique and special, a woman's journey through grief depicted with visual richness, dramatic intensity, and narrative virtuosity. The sound design alone is worth the price of admission. Reese Witherspoon, one of Hollywood's finest actors, is in top form here, giving an emotionally wrenching, go-for-broke, yet atypically restrained performance. Whatever its small faults or rough edges, Wild surely represents an artistic high point for all involved.

To sum up: see this movie.

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee. What a badass. 

UPDATE 2/7/2016:  Please check out this excerpt from this wonderful roundtable interview in which Reese Witherspoon addresses the sexism implicit in the Academy's failure to recognize Wild -- or any other female-led films -- in 2014:
It was really interesting how well received [Wild] was and how well it did. It was one of the highest reviewed movies of the year last year not in Oscar consideration at all for best picture. At the time I was like, ‘Okay, it’s one of the best reviewed films of the year, but it’s not one of the top 10.’ It’s hard. I looked and was like, ‘Are any of the top-10 movies starring women?’ None.
* Both these films suffer from the "formulaic biopic" problem -- The Imitation Game, despite its interesting and powerful subject matter and superbly executed central performance, is edited, directed, and scored like a shitty assed Lifetime movie, and its formal clunkiness hinders, even mars the material. [UPDATE 3/27/2015: To be fair, the biopic is not a genre I am typically drawn to and I may have a lackluster appreciation for its conventions.]
** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (U. Texas Press, 2010) p. 128.
*** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers p. 139-40.

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