Wild (film)

This was my second book-to-film cinema experience this weekend. This time I watched Wild with Reese Witherspoon starring as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who walks the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The movie was released December 5th to a limited number of cities (not mine) and this morning was the earliest I could get there. Wild has been on my calendar since I heard when it would be released, so those extra two weeks were frustrating. The movie, of course, is based on Strayed’s wildly successful memoir of the same title. I did a brief and not-totally-helpful review of the audiobook earlier this year.

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The movie begins with Strayed on the side of a mountain removing a hiking book and shrieking. Her big toe nail is barely hanging on, and as she removes the offending nail and screams in pain, one of her boots falls down the side of mountain. In frustration, she flings the other boot off, too, screaming, “Fuck you, bitch!” Now, this part was both awful and funny—for some reason, perhaps the early show time (10:40am), I was the youngest person in the theater by about 40 years.

Through flashbacks and less-than-one-second clips of film, we learn that Strayed is recently divorced and grieving the death of her mother, a woman who was the “love of [Strayed’s] life.” Between the death and the divorce, Strayed has intercourse with anyone who asks, including her restaurant customers (sometimes more than one at a time) and bar patrons, but she no longer is intimate with her husband. She’s smoking and shooting heroine to be “happy.”

The sexual aspect of this film very carefully delivers a message that too often gets confused in America: just because woman did something promiscuous in her past does not mean she’s “asking for it” in the present.

While on the PCT, Strayed only has one sexual partner, and the rest of the time she fears for her physical safety. Men constantly imply she’s “that kind of girl” and try to get her alone. They inch toward the notion that if only she’d put out, she’d get something in return: food, a ride, shelter, water. I mean, come in; what kind of woman walks 1,000 miles alone (goes the thinking). The way Strayed seems practically chased down the PCT as she tries to escape would-be rapists made me feel like I was running too, from a fear that women must always assume could turn into a reality. At one point, Strayed sees two hunters. After they spend too much time with their hands on their low-slung belts and talk about her like she’s not there, Strayed claims she’s leaving. Around the bend, she sets up camp and changes into her pajamas only to realize one of the hunters has followed watched her change. He says he likes the way her hips and legs and “tight ass” look in her pants. Strayed asks that he not say that, but he retorts that women don’t know how to take a compliment. Sound familiar? We’ve been discussing what constitutes sexual harassment in America so much lately, and Wild addresses it over and over and over again. It was a strong aspect of the film–my favorite, in fact. I was so proud when one man tells Strayed “you sound like a feminist” like it’s an insult, and she replies, “I am.”

While much of the movie is walking and Strayed talking to herself, the flashbacks come in at key moments and overlap with the present, suggesting Strayed can’t tell the difference. At one point, she looks in the window of a cabin only to see an x-ray of her mother’s spine, which is covered in tumors. Other times, songs send Strayed back. For instance, a song on the radio reminds Strayed of her mother singing in the kitchen. Annoyed, Strayed tells her mom (played by Laura Dern) to stop singing because there is no reason to be happy: they are both full-time waitresses, college students, and they will have loan debt for the rest of their lives. Strayed’s mother reminds her daughter to find the best version of herself and cling to it. Strayed remains fiercely annoyed and disappointed. At one point, she even feels the need to tell her mom that she is a more sophisticated woman than her mother was at the same age. The scenes between Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern were beautiful. Dern has the right kind of rugged look mixed with a soft side that suggests she’s been through a lot, but is a delicate and beautiful person nonetheless. Dern almost comes off as an “everywoman’s mother,” making it not so hard to believe she could be in your kitchen singing and taking to you.

The other characters in the cast had the same harsh look to them, but not as much softness. This is a good thing. Strayed’s friend Aimee has thick, unplucked eyebrows, messy hair, and lacks make-up. She looks like the most regular woman in the nation. Strayed looks much worse: her face is bruised from walking into branches, there are massive bruises/rashes/bloody spots everywhere her pack contacts her body, her feet are covered in blisters and bleeding, and she seems to have huge half-dried scabs on any part of her that’s pointy (knuckles, knees, elbows, etc.). The beauty in this is that the movie doesn’t take the story of a woman on the edge of life and death and make her Hollywood glamorous. As much as I love Katniss Everdeen, ever notice she always has at least some mascara and lip gloss? Such touches distract from a film in which a woman is fighting for her life.

The only part I couldn’t get behind was the fox. After a while, it’s clearly a metaphor for Strayed’s mother watching her on the PCT, but the creature was a fairly pitiful computer generated image. Also, Reese Witherspoon seemed pretty insistent on biting down spoons whenever she ate, which in a Dolby Digital surround-sound theater is pretty loud and awful. Clunk, clink, chomp, swallow. Lots of it. Finally, during the credits actual photos of author Cheryl Strayed on the PCT were displayed, but they didn’t appear right away, so most of the theatergoers had left. I stayed because I assumed it would be a huge mistake if the filmmaker didn’t take the opportunity to compare Witherspoon and the author, and I was justified.

Overall, Wild doesn’t need to be “touched up.” It doesn’t need unnecessary drama, explosions, fight scenes, or other fanfare that has become standard in American film to keep our preoccupied brains at attention. In fact, much of the film relies on internal monologue, brief dialogue, or silence—even if Strayed’s heart is screaming. Instead, the movie says something about Americans today: the way they act and react to a world that can close down its jaws and bite hard.

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