In the closing minutes of Wild, there’s a scene that, in pretty much any other film, would be a damning indictment on its quality, falling flat on its face into cheap heart-tugger territory. Walking through her last stretch of the 1700 km long Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), comes across a wandering llama. With a saddle and a lead rope around its neck, its clear that the llama belongs to someone. She pets it for a moment, before the owners approach – an older woman, and her grandson, a 5 year old boy. Perfectly polite and with big blue eyes, he tells Cheryl that he’s staying with his grandma because he has problems he’s “not allowed to talk about with strangers”, before singing a folk song. The perfect child and grandmother, the song, the somewhat fantastical appearance of the llama in the first place, to quote the screenplay, it’s “strange and funny and beautiful”, an odd moment that somehow doesn’t cross the line of being eye rollingly sentimental. Instead, like Cheryl, you’re holding back tears.
Look through Jean-Marc Vallee’s filmography, and you’ll find a variety of moments like this. Characters being woken up with a cacophony of mobile phone alarms, and then cursing at their various pieces of modern technology. A teenager rising above the congregation at a boring Christmas Eve mass to Sympathy for the Devil by The Rolling Stones. Ones that shouldn’t work, that when described sound completely ridiculous and problematic, but when experienced (and I mean experienced, with his trademark use of diegetic music blasting through the speakers) in context, they become something else, unexpectedly moving, and what really sets his work apart.
But in 2013, Vallee, a well-established filmmaker in his native Quebec, made a move away from this with Dallas Buyers Club, his first truly ‘American’ film, an ‘Oscar’ film through and through, with bravura performances and all the plot beats needed to snag nominations for the big night. While boasting good performances (stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto would both win Oscars for their turns) and direction, the film felt somewhat controlled, absent of the “strange and funny and beautiful” moments that defined his work. There was no striking visuals, no natural direction or performances, and none of his trademark whirlwind editing or use of music. It was about as conventional as you could get. So I approached Wild, seemingly another chapter in his restrained, Hollywood career, with some apprehension initially. But only a minute into the film, there’s a moment that announces that Vallee is back in full force, unintrusive but powerful direction, masterful editing and all. Entering midway through Cheryl’s hike, we’re privy to a moment of weakness, where internalised pain and frustration bubble to the surface. Her boots are too small, resulting in her losing toenails, and she has to get to her next camp to collect her new ones. While ripping off a toenail, she knocks one of her boots over the edge of the cliff into the seemingly infinite and impenetrable forest below. She screams a handful of obscenities and hurls the other one over the edge before letting out a piercing scream, the type that could be heard miles away if there was anyone there to hear it, as a short, sharp flurry of memories violently whiz through her mind – sex, drugs, struggle, death.
Over the next 2 hours, as we advance, gaining more of Cheryl’s trust and learning more of her life story, the layers are peeled back, exposing motives and everlasting trauma. We learn that we’re in 1995, and by then, she had lived through four or so years of utter hell, internalising grief and trauma until it destroyed her from the inside out. Her mother died of cancer, resulting in her searching for intimacy in any way she could, mostly through meaningless sex and a quickly spiralling heroin addiction. She detached from everyone around her, breaking up her marriage and alienating her friends. Possibly one reckless decision away from death, she hatched a rather, yes, stupid, and radical plan – despite having never gone on a proper, long hike, she decided to walk the entire Pacific Crest Trail, a track stretching for around 1700 km from the Mexican border in California to the Bridge of the Gods in Oregon, through deserts and unpredictable, snowy mountain ranges, a journey that would take her around 100 days. The motive? “I’m going to walk myself back to the person my mother thought I was” as she says tearfully in one flashback.
As Vallee demonstrated with his past work, he’s the master of what usually is a trapping – the flashback. Avoiding the use of lengthy, jarring deviations, he opts for the much more memory-influenced flashes that naturally enter and exit as songs play and visual cues appear, the same situations being remembered for a handful of disparate moments. One’s brain can be a horrible place to be horrible place to be for any length of time, let alone for 100 days. Three months eating away at herself, no company or escape from the burden of guilt and memories. No distractions, just the past replaying like a fragmented film on constant repeat. Through this ‘memories are everywhere’ approach, making her past inescapable, appearing at any given moment, Vallee achieves the levels of emotional involvement inherent in particularly Cafe de Flore, where he gradually draws in the audience as the film goes to another level. The little moments pile up, the sightings, thoughts, becoming an ache. The flashes move fast, reminiscent of moments where the well feels like an uncontrollable, half-asleep haze. The build to the peak of emotion is so subtle, a slow build of intensity until reaching a state of utter overwhelm that results in a cathartic, authentic response.
I guess the thing that this story and film calls for, more than anything else, is faith. Reese Witherspoon isn’t (yet) regarded as one of the best actors of her generation, but as Cheryl, she certainly makes a case to be in the future. From her first pained gasp at the beginning of the film to her awe-filled look at the end, she exudes nothing less than 100% passion, understanding, and belief about the part she’s playing, commitment to Cheryl’s story, carrying every pound of her “monster” backpack with utter conviction and fearlessness. Having done a string of parts in romantic comedies since her Oscar winning turn in Walk the Line nearly ten years ago, she gives the role in a film that is essentially a one woman show everything she has. She’s funny, heartwrenching, and oh so brave, a joy, almost a revelation, to watch.
For Vallee, after his impassioned previous work, faith was also missing in Dallas Buyers Club, script and production constraints preventing him from exuding that same sense of verve. For Wild, he is armed with an excellent screenplay by popular novelist Nick Hornby, who turns out to be the perfect match for Vallee, completely not concerned with making a quote-ready, saccharine film. In Wild, Hornby again finds humour in the most unexpected of places (after all, he did also find a lot of humour in a 17 year old girl essentially throwing her life away), making constant walking and talky self-reflection into something not self-indulgent, steering the film away from Oprah territory (Cheryl Strayed’s book was an Oprah’s Book Club selection, after all) into a funny and realistic portrait that never punishes Cheryl for her past. After all, as a character says midway through the film, “you strike me as someone who’s done plenty of that already”.
Coming right off the back of string of similarly minded films (127 Hours, Into the Wild etc), Wild has been shut out of major recognition. It’s a shame, because this film is a complex, moving work about emotional trauma (it’s far from the bland, safe, PG-13 Best Actress reel it could have been) and a better film than Dallas Buyers Club. It’s a brave, visceral, unique, universal experience, the most unconventional way to tackle a familiar premise. However, I fully believe it will only find more fans in the future. And me? You can bet that I’ll be there, crying over that “strange, funny and beautiful” scene for the countless time.
The verdict: In 2014, I found that I wasn’t authentically moved by or attached to as many films as the previous year. Then Wild wandered in, straight to near the top of the list, my heart in its hand. Life can get so out of control, so beyond control, and regardless of your situation, one day you can turn around and have no idea how you ended up where you are. Excellent performances and complex, unconventional, riveting storytelling combine to create an overwhelming and intense but incredibly rewarding and warm journey. “I’m going to walk myself back to the person my mother thought I was” honestly sounds so ridiculous, but I promise you, it’s not. Wild is Jean-Marc Vallee at his overwhelming best, and a remarkable return to form.