The following contains spoilers for Wild. You have been warned.
Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow up to last year’s much-lauded Dallas Buyers Club, debuted in limited release last year after a lengthy festival run. The movie is (like DBC) based on a true story, in this case on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, played in the film by Reese Witherspoon. James Tisch and I both managed to find a theater playing it, and we found plenty worth talking about.
Tim: Ok, so to get started, I want to address something I mentioned at the tail end of my review. To me, Wild feels shoehorned into the “Oscar contender” mold. I’m not saying it’s not worthy; that’s another discussion altogether. But the publicity, the way this movie’s been shown through the awards circuit, the buzz that Fox Searchlight seems to be trying to attach to the movie, it all seems a little at odds with the film’s virtues. This is a small movie, one that is purposefully simple, one that’s great when it doesn’t try to deliver the sort of sweeping, emotional-high revelations you generally associate with something that’s being positioned as awards fodder.
James: The awards race, and the perception of it going into certain films, can work against some movie without question. That’s true of so many films coming out this time of year. That said, whatever the “buzz” is on Wild, I was pretty impressed with what I actually saw on the screen the majority of the time. Oddly, since we’re now officially into the awards maelstrom, I feel Wild is getting a little slighted.
Tim: I agree, though with the caveat that I’ll withhold judgment ’til I see a few more films that are out between now and the end of the year. I remember reading someone’s reaction to the movie when it screened at TIFF, and they said it wasn’t as good as Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee directed both Wild and last year’s contender). But although I agree the movie isn’t quite as good overall, I do think that Vallee actually had a lot more work to do here, and he did it very well.
James: Comparing the two films is a little odd considering they are so different. Dallas Buyers Club told a personal story that was wrapped into an even larger one, while Wild is intimate character study without any pretense of being anything larger than that (not that that alone can’t be substantial). I’m not really sure why it seems Wild isn’t quite connecting with critics in a more resounding way, but I found it really moving, beautifully filmed, and headed by a terrific and a bit of a surprising turn by Reese Witherspoon.
Tim: Several of those pieces I want to get back to in a little more detail, but now that we’ve got a bit of a baseline reaction from you, I do want to ask you about your personal connection to basic setup – an extended hiking trip. I love the outdoors and hiking the PCT sounds like a dream to me, but I realize it might not be for a lot of people. Is that something you identified with? Or did the voyeurism not really factor in for you?
James: I love to hike, but the PCT is next-level hiking and probably not my cup of tea. I felt a connection to the character and for the first time in many years, I really saw Witherspoon fully as a character (in this case, Cheryl Strayed) rather than as a movie star. Even though Wild sort of operates as a star vehicle, she – at least from my eyes – kind of vanished into the part rather persuasively. A film like this lives or dies on the commitment of the lead and I found myself caring about this person pretty early on.
Tim: I think for me this is one of the bits that goes back to the weird expectations I felt were thrust on this movie. The early word was that Reese Witherspoon could be looking at another Best Actress Oscar (she won one for Walk the Line), but Wild only has a little of the flash that you expect to see with most performances that draw that kind of consideration. I think Witherspoon gave a very good performance, but not one I’d generally associate with an automatic awards nomination. And I think to a degree that actually works in Wild’s favor, because it’s at its best when the movie and all its constituent parts washes over you.
James: I think Witherspoon’s performance is quite minimalist (and I intend that as a compliment) in that even though the role of Cheryl Strayed comes with a lot of stuff that could be be played grandly (she grieves, has a lot of sex, does heroin), Witherspoon keeps it quite contained for the most part, letting piece by piece of the story flow quietly but organically throughout the film. It never felt heavy-handed.
Tim: There’s one scene in particular that signaled to me that Wild was for real – the scene where Cheryl hooks up with the guy in Oregon. It made me cringe for her, but it felt so believable and almost necessary. You don’t leave bad habits behind overnight. On the trail, Cheryl always had to keep her guard up. That was the one spot where she could feel a little more safe, where she psychologically came back to the real world a little bit – and there was still work to do. That’s actually part of why I disliked the didactic narration at the end of the movie so much. This and many other parts of the movie were beautifully expressing how much Wild was quietly descriptive of a moment (an important moment, but still a moment) in Cheryl’s life.
James: I think had half the dialogue of the film been cut, it might have been a great film rather than just a very good film. I haven’t read the book, but I get a sense that perhaps there were passages in it that the filmmakers just didn’t want to part with – just a theory as to why some of narration (and especially the ending portion) may not have totally worked.
Tim: I imagine that’s possible. The process of adapting a book is always tricky, and although I haven’t read this book either, I would imagine it was doubly so. So even though I hate some of those overly talk-y sections, that’s also why I’m doubly impressed by a lot of the movie. Memory is always a tricky thing to render on screen, and for me, they perfectly captured how your thoughts weave in and out with your present reality when you spend all day alone on a trail.
James: Yes, I totally agree. Strangely, or possibly not, I was more worried about how the flashbacks were going to be utilized and incorporated into the movie than how Vallee was going to make the hiking sequences work. Yet, they were really organically put into the movie and woven in beautifully. It helps when someone like Laura Dern is around to keep everything as honest and accessible as possible.
Tim: You don’t realize how good Laura Dern is in this movie until that one moment where her Bobbi is sort of arguing with Cheryl and just for a moment she almost breaks her constantly cheery and optimistic exterior. The way she modulates emotion in that scene, wow, it’s good. And while I know Thomas Sadoski has a very small part in this film when it’s all said and done, I have to throw him a bone. I like the guy a lot, and I think he’s perfectly cast in this movie. I loved that little scene where Paul (Sadoski) and Cheryl are getting their divorce tattoos together.
James: That tattoo scene could have been way too overbearingly cute without the actors working on that kind of level. Just to touch back on Dern again, I found myself missing her whenever she wasn’t on screen. Dern’s performance is so important in making the film work at all – we have to miss her character almost as much as Cheryl does.
Tim: Sure. I didn’t personally have that reaction, but it’s certainly one I can understand. As we move towards wrapping this thing up, there’s one more major bit I wanted to make sure to get your take on, and it’s something we’ve touched on briefly already. As a movie that’s dealing heavily in imagery and emotion, and less importantly in the plot (the plot is there and effective, but where Cheryl is on her journey is never the focus), it’s also a movie that’s heavy on theme. And I think that’s a good thing. But walking out of Wild, I found myself wondering if 1) it had successfully landed itself thematically, and 2) if it really needed to.
James: That’s the curious case with movies that are more about the journey than the end result. I feel this is probably near the best version of what this movie could have been. I think the answers to your two questions might be proven to be a bit divisive in the end in the end, but I feel it landed successfully even though it probably could have coasted a lot of the time.
Tim: Eh, what’s the fun if we’re not a little bit divisive? But I think we’re mostly in the same place, I’d just describe it as (to complete the gymnastics metaphor) taking a couple hops on the landing that needed to be part of the movie but never needed to be an especially big part.
James: The imagery and emotionally stirring performances resonated with me strongly enough that I can pretty much forgive the film for not sticking its dismount.