Wild Wields the Power to Inspire Those Who Can Stomach Its Hard R-Rating
- Jeffrey Huston Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
- 2014 4 Dec
DVD Release Date: March 31, 2015
Theatrical Release Date: December 5, 2014 limited; wider through December.
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and strong language)
Run Time: 115 min
Directors: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Kevin Rankin
Editor's note: This review contains frank discussion of the film's cautionary content, some of it graphically sexual. Parents please be advised.
Early on in Wild – the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about her grueling three-month trek up the American Pacific coast – there’s a flashback to one of Cheryl’s college classes. In it, the professor cites a line from an Adrienne Rich poem about Marie Curie, the (first female) Nobel Prize winner who pioneered radioactivity only to eventually die from radiation exposure. Of Curie, the poet wrote: "She died… denying her wounds came from the same source as her power."
It proves a perfect metaphor for Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, The Good Lie), whose journey is to stop denying this same dichotomy in her own nature and finally harness it before she destroys herself. Indeed, the title Wild is not only in reference to her 1,100 mile hike; more fully, it’s about Cheryl’s resolve to move from a wild destructive path to a wild redemptive one.
After opening on a cringe-inducing pivotal moment, the film backtracks to the trek’s beginning (which took place in the summer of 1995, before cell phones kept people connected). The narrative structure, from a screenplay by Nick Hornby (writer of High Fidelity, About A Boy, among others), cuts between Cheryl’s hike up the Pacific Crest Trail (from Mexico to Canada) and flashbacks to her past.
Those flashbacks are important in defining Cheryl's need to take this survival expedition, slowly revealing the demons that haunt her, and focusing on her relationship with her single mother Bobbi (Laura Dern, The Fault In Our Stars) as well as her now ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski, HBO’s The Newsroom, in a raw and gracious performance that would have awards buzz if he were famous).
Through the arc of these flashbacks we see that, while life has dealt Cheryl some tragic cards, her response to life’s trials has been to further stack the deck against herself through self-destructive behavior ranging from illicit drugs to promiscuous sex (each explicitly depicted; this content makes for a hard-R rating). She's had tough breaks, but ultimately she's the one who ruined her life.
The Pacific Crest Hike, then, is her response to Rock Bottom. This punishing journey – one that will test her physical and psychological endurance – is to recapture the person she was. It is, in a sense, both her penance and her sacrament. She wants her integrity back. She wants her humanity back. And she wants to earn it.
The start certainty doesn't look promising as Cheryl struggles to even stand upright with her bulky backpack. Her doubts then conspire against her as she sets out, only to then have them validated by how unprepared she discovers herself to be (as she's never hiked before) despite her best preparation efforts. Compounding this struggle is that she's alone, and as she meets strangers along the way it's difficult to discern whether they're threatening or trustworthy. Interacting with people often takes as much courage for Cheryl as being alone does.
As the journey takes its toll (which include bloody sores, scars, and injuries all over her body), dementia sets in as a result of brutal conditions, dehydration, and guilt-ridden mind games. We really get inside her experience, and her head, through director Jean-Marc Vallée’s strong cinematic command. He displayed the same level of skill in 2013 by conveying the toll of AIDS victim Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club (which garnered Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto acting Oscars; Witherspoon seems certain to follow with a nomination at least).
None of his techniques are new or flashy, but Vallée has an artful control of them like few others. With a touch that's subtle yet visceral, Vallée's aesthetic – which blends image, sound, movement, and editing to hypnotic effect – is extremely evocative, and makes the experience palpable. His style also enables us to see the absolute worst in Cheryl while still empathizing with (and even rooting for) her to overcome, all while eliciting tension and gasps. There are profound wallops, too, such as when a young boy's innocence triggers an emotional release from Cheryl that she'd been too guarded and cynical to access.
Witherspoon, who optioned the book and produced the film, pours herself into the role so wholly that she redefines our perceptions of her range and depth. Yes, she bares herself physically and even sexually in numerous scenes, but to humiliating rather than arousing effect. Those moments (along with others that show her numerous scars and injuries) personify the degrees to which she lays herself bare emotionally and psychologically. When she says, "Everything hurts, all the time," ultimately it refers to more than just the physical. This is a woman on the brink, and that's exactly where Witherspoon takes herself. Joining her in what seems to be a lock for an Oscar nomination is Dern who, as Cheryl's joyfully resilient mother, caps a banner year of maternal roles (including When The Game Stands Tall) with her most deeply felt turn, displaying a vulnerability that also proves her strength (acknowledging the wounding power that Marie Curie, according to the poet, had denied).
For as much as the film would seem a deterrent, Wild actually wields the power to inspire others to hike the trail, to be tested by it, to overcome it. To face "I can't" and then do. To discover that we're capable of being more than our worst selves. And yet for all the benefits of this kind of journey, Cheryl still makes a sobering realization: "When I'm done, I'll have to start living." Humbled, she intuits that these journeys can't fix us but rather prepare us: to create a foundation to lean on, and to replenish our reservoir of faith from which we can draw strength when the trials of life inevitably blindside us again.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Several scenes of drug content, from preparation to consumption, predominantly the taking of heroin (from smoking it to shooting it up).
- Language/Profanity: Strong profanity throughout, with the F-word being predominant along with the S-word. The B-word is used once, as is an instance of the Lord's name in vain. Cheryl also expresses profane anger directly toward God in a couple of scenes. A crude hand gesture.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Scenes of sexual intercourse, in various positions. At first they’re seen in quick flashcuts, but then in longer shots and takes as the film progresses. Another scene of Cheryl having sex in a back alley with two strangers; no nudity but aggressive sex is depicted. Sometimes the taking of drugs and sexual content coincide. The sexual content is of a hard-R variety. Nudity also occurs at times, including topless, both in sexual contexts as well as to reveal bruises, cuts, and injuries. A full frontal shot of a naked man bathing in a river stream, but seen from a far distance.
- Violence/Other: Bloody scars and injuries are seen on most parts of Cheryl's body, in a handful of different scenes, including some graphic cut injuries on her feet. Several scenes carry the fear and threat that Cheryl could be assaulted by male strangers, including the possibility of rape. The general toll of her trek is grueling.
Publication date: December 4, 2014