“True story” movies have always been popular. Three of the last four Best Picture-winners were based on true stories. Nonetheless, I feel like there have been a lot more than usual this year. We’ve got The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper, Big Eyes… uhm… Exodus (?), and the movie I’m reviewing today. That’s a lot compared to last year’s 12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club. Actually, it’s not that many more, but let’s ignore that and stick to my initially planned segue. I’m leading from “true story” and Dallas Buyers Club into…
The Plot: After her mother (Laura Dern) dies, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) spirals into destitution, drug abuse, and rampant adultery, effectively destroying her otherwise decent life. Once everything has really gone wrong, she decides that it’s high time she turns over a new leaf, and tries to straighten herself out. The most obvious way to do this? Hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Pfft, it’s only, like, 2600 miles long. Barely enough room for self-discovery in all that.
So, the reason I wanted to bring up Dallas Buyers Club was because Wild is also directed by French-Canadian douchebag Jean-Marc Vallée. Admittedly, I’ve never met the man or heard him speak, and when I say “douchebag” I don’t mean it the way I would in reference to Kevin Smith or Jared Leto or Alejandro González Iñárritu; I just mean that he clearly thinks he’s better than he is. I reviewed Dallas Buyers Club last year and, in case nothing has given it away yet, I didn’t like it. Rereading that article, I realize that I wasn’t quite being harsh enough. I think I, like many others, was still recovering from the revelation that Matthew McConaughey can act, although that came for me with Mud. I blamed many of Dallas Buyers Club’s myriad faults on a weak screenplay. I failed to take note of Vallée’s missteps, perhaps because the truth didn’t become abundantly clear until I saw Wild. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, Wild boasts a strong screenplay from veteran writer Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy, High Fidelity), and yet Wild suffers many of the same shortcomings as its director’s previous work. The only explanation? The director just kind of sucks at his job.
“Hack” doesn’t quite fit as a descriptor. That term implies someone who goes through the motions just to get his paycheck at the end of the day, with no pretense of artistic integrity. Vallée isn’t a hack. He’s a fraud. That might sound extreme, but you know what’s worse than putting a story on a screen without any flair or finesse? Overpowering that story with a thematically irrelevant and ultimately masturbatory artistic vision. I’m looking at you, Birdman. Vallée’s preferred method for this is to overextend his sense of motifs. In this case, in an effort to engage with Cheryl’s thought process, Vallée mimics a stream-of-consciousness trigger effect, so that Cheryl will spot something on the trail that reminds her of something in her past, that reminds her of another thing, and another, all presented in rapid-fire montage in just a few seconds. That works extremely well the first time he uses it. It doesn’t work as well the sixth time. Or the seventh time. Initially, this technique captures the fragility of Cheryl’s psyche and the immediacy of her shame. Even in the middle of the dessert, she can’t escape her guilt. It’s a great cinematic depiction of trauma. Unfortunately, this is a movie about healing, and as Hornby allows Cheryl to change and develop, the fact that Vallée needs to tell the audience over and over again that she hasn’t changed and is still broken mentally not only gets boring to watch, but actively contradicts the message of the film. Worse still, I’m positive that that wasn’t his intention. It probably never occurred to him that he was harming his film. More likely, he did something once, and thought, “Oh, that was good; I’ll keep doing it.”
Despite its unfortunately bad direction, Wild manages to be a pretty good film. Although I realized about half way through the first scene that I just don’t like Reese Witherspoon’s voice, she does deliver a strong performance, and ably captures what Hornby was going for in his screenplay. As I mentioned, the screenplay has several noteworthy strengths, although suffers a little for Hornby’s background. This is only his second screenplay, and as a novelist he depends too heavily on voice-over and inner monologue. I can let that slide, though.
Ultimately, he and Witherspoon succeed where Vallée fails. They delve deeply into this character, understand who she is and what she wants, and execute her arc splendidly. As I noted in my recent review of The Theory of Everything, movies about people who are still alive often avoid portraying flawed characters for fear of offending anyone. I haven’t read the real Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, but I gather she doesn’t beat around the bush about anything, and in reflecting upon her life, actually manages to critique and analyze herself fairly well. Sounds like decent source material to me. The greatest strength of film is that it looks at this inspirational true story and doesn’t dilute it to make it more positive and inspirational than it is. The message of the film—and yes, refreshingly, it actually does have a message—is innate to the story.
Cheryl is kind of a sad person. Although her mother encouraged her through her whole life to be a strong, independent woman, Cheryl ended up emotionally dependent. When her mother died, she didn’t know what to do with herself, and so totally fell apart into a vicious spiral of debauchery and shame. Eventually she recognized that she needs some time alone to sort herself out spiritually and psychologically. Have you heard this one before? She separates herself from the world to escape her past, but, of course, she can’t. Right at the end of the movie, things get really good again. As she reaches the end of her trek, Cheryl has an epiphany: escape is not at hand for the travellin’ man. Pretending that the bad things didn’t happen and trying to forget about them is not the path to healing. Cheryl can’t recover or move forward at all if she can’t accept who she is. How can she improve something she doesn’t want to think about? In the end, we all have to recognize the good and the bad within us, because everything we do produces who we are. While not a wholly original sentiment, I think it warrants repetition. And yes, I was just so relieved to watch an Oscar movie with a point.