Anyone who has gone to the movies recently knows that Hollywood is in desperate need of a dramaturge. Most new films are so clumsily yet predictably constructed (whether Boyhood or Gone Girl) they cannot produce the emotional coherence remembered from solid, classically made films. This clumsiness-bordering-on-ineptitude seriously impairs the new Reese Witherspoon movie Wild.
Director Jean Marc Vallee who made last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club and novelist-turned-screenwriter Nick Hornby adapt Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 autobiography Wild, which described her journey through grief, drugs, and sex — a downward spiral turned into an uplifted metaphor of healing. Strayed purged her anguished self-loathing by enduring a scary, grueling, exhausting backpacking hike up the Pacific Coast Trail.
Vallee’s idea of making a picaresque isn’t exactly wild. His on-foot road movie repeats the most banal formula for probing emotional stress: the incessant flashback. Cheryl’s recall of her broken marriage couldn’t be freer of old values and regrets; her perspective reflects faddish ideas on female independence (conscious uncoupling, recoupling and several tempted and threatened couplings). But instead of understanding Cheryl’s restlessness, we’re distracted by time-jumping flashbacks that channel her dissatisfaction into contrapuntal scenes of promiscuous hookups, heroin debauches along with addiction recovery and memories of growing up in an abusive household with a brutal father and desperate, unfathomably optimistic mother. At one point both Cheryl and her mom (Laura Dern) attend the same junior college; they share a frustrated need to understand their condition.
Wild could easily be called Messy. Its title doesn’t specify outdoor nature or personal unruliness but its narrative certainly seems unstructured. Cheryl’s wilderness trek intrudes on nature, referring to the physical habitat and unpredictable forces that humans must traverse. Her physical hardships are meant to parallel psychic trials. In a way it’s a Halle Berry role with slightly less masochism. Cheryl avails herself of literary and cultural references (quotes from Joni Mitchell to Robert Frost appear on screen like chapter headings). Because Cheryl is not established as a cultured person and there is no explanation of how she got that way, the mottos and Simon & Garfunkel theme song just seem like Vallee and Hornsby showing off.
This fragmented narrative isn’t necessarily true to how we assess our lives; the cognitive experience that was Alain Resnais’s post–World War II specialty — and the source of new emotional splendor in his recent movies Private Fears in Public Places, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and Life of Riley – is reduced to non-rigorous flamboyance. These storytelling mannerisms sensationalize Cheryl’s agony and passion. The sense of loss that is touchingly conveyed when she encounters a child as nostalgic as her inner self is an incoherent gimmick rather than a summation.
What might seem new about Wild’s unfortunate structure is actually wearying and hackneyed. When Agnes Varda made Vagabond, her 1984 girl-on-the-road film starring Sandrine Bonnaire, she simplified the experimental methods of the French New Wave to achieve a fresh style that was almost feminist neorealism. Varda’s semi-doc appreciation for how nature and social custom intertwine gave richness to her tale of a female renegade. Her original French title Sans toit ni loi (“without roof or law”) tested instinct against conformity, ideology against individuality. Americans don’t think that way, so Cheryl’s odyssey is treated in vague, post-hippie terms where personal satisfaction negates social responsibility.
That same quandary plagued — and ruined — recent movies by the independent director Kelly Reichardt (her smug, shaggy-dog love story Wendy and Lucy and her tedious western Meek’s Cutoff).. Wild, while less schematic, is similarly disconnected from social obligation. Its emphasis on Cheryl’s personal sentiments (memories, lusts, fears) reflects contemporary young adult values and millennial solipsism — but is that helpful?
Witherspoon balances trashiness and spunk with glimpses of appealing girlish decency, but the strength of her characterization is weakened by Vallee and Hornsby’s helter-skelter method. Her piecemeal performance never breaks through the disorder the way Dern’s motherly lesson on “happiness” does. In that one scene Dern coheres struggle and tenacity while Witherspoon’s task throughout is to portray resilience within an ever-shifting cinematic mosaic.
Wild suffers from false artiness. Agnes Varda is the real thing and Reichardt wants to be but Vallee and Hornsby, a Canadian and a Brit, are so out of their territory they barely convey a credible sense of American girl spunk. What authenticity the film has is all Witherspoon’s, but even her good efforts are spoiled by an end-credits photomontage of the real life Strayed, who is visibly tough — a fighter — whereas tiny Witherspoon suggests a Dickensian waif going through hell and at prey to men. This postscript real-life “proof” is another cliché Vallee should have avoided. It apologizes for an uninspired art effort.
For Wild to be truly wild, it needed to resemble Rihanna’s music video We Found Love (in a Hopeless Place) where the time-shuffling narrative got wilder and deeper into a young woman’s sense of abandon. Music video director Melina Matsoukas created a great swirl of wantonness and risk that drew viewers so far into Rihanna’s personal moral vortex that p.c. social commentators still cannot fathom the real woman behind the celebrity tease. Time magazine darling Taylor Swift has done nothing as daring or as creative as We Found Love. Post-feminist Rihanna challenged feminist agency — violating the sanctity of those who care about that kind of thing — while Vallee and Hornsby force Witherspoon to play it Oscar-safe.
— Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review Online and received the American Book Award’s Anti-Censorship prize. He is the author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about the Movies.