It’s hard to logically argue an almost completely visceral and emotional reaction to a film. Then again, aren’t emotional appeals the main point of making art? Sure, many creative endeavors seek to educate or to enlighten on a particular subject, or make an academic statement using intellectual appeals. But I would argue that the overwhelming majority of artists seek to hit the audience in the collective gut, wishing to elicit the strongest possible emotional response to their work.
That’s exactly what happened to me as I watched Wild.
Set in the early 1990s, and based on her memoir of the same title, it tells the story of Cheryl Strayed who, after suffering a traumatic death in the family and subsequent poor life decisions, chose to hike 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to get her life back on track. Due to my own hard won weight loss, I have a bias when it comes to stories about emotional and psychological purification through physical exertion and hardship, so maybe I should recuse myself from writing a review about Wild. I won’t, though. I feel strongly enough about this film that I need to let others know about it, impartiality be damned.
It may be unfair to compare Wild to the 2007 film Into the Wild, because the film is strong enough to stand on its own, but the somewhat similar subject matter makes the comparison too enticing to resist. I was indescribably moved by Into the Wild, the story of a man who walks away from a successful, upper middle class life in order to experience the wonders of nature and life on his own terms. I know it might seem odd to be so connected to a protagonist who took dangerous risks, leading directly to a tragic end, and was thoughtless when it came to those who loved him. For me, though, there is a certain romance to stories about hitting the open road (or trail), and it moved me. So, too, was I equally moved by Wild.
Just like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, seeing Cheryl triumph over physical adversity in this film is to go through it with her. As a runner, I’ve been lucky enough to never actually lose a toenail during training. That scene, in which Strayed must peel one of hers off, due to wearing painfully small hiking boots, forced me to look away from the screen. Thankfully, her attempts at setting up her tent for the first time bring needed levity to the experience. Most importantly, Cheryl leaves behind quotes in sign-in books along the trail, which allowed me to reflect on every hard mile she put on her feet during the film’s journey. The journey also made my own sense of wanderlust grow.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who burst onto the American film scene with 2013’s Dallas Buyer’s Club, uses a hand held camera to give the film an intimate, you-are-there immediacy that exemplifies much of what makes Wild successful. The cinematography, by Yves Bélanger, is muted yet captures the beauty of the nature that features predominantly in the film. Indeed, just as in Into the Wild, nature itself becomes a living, breathing character.
But Wild isn’t only a nature film, and the human struggle also matters. That struggle registers triumphantly when Vallée employs a leitmotif using the Simon and Garfunkel tune El Condor Pasa (If I Could), to show insight into the life changing moments on Cheryl’s personal odyssey. I have to admit, as I haven’t read the book, that I don’t know if Strayed writes specifically about any song in her memoir or if it was a creative decision of the filmmakers. There is no film score, but the pop songs used throughout intertwine effortlessly with the story. Such as when Strayed walks into a town in Oregon and discovers, by way of an impromptu street tribute of Grateful Dead tunes, that Jerry Garcia has died.
Of course, very few films are flawless and Wild isn’t an exception to the rule. Nick Hornby – whose own novels About a Boy and High Fidelity have been turned into successful movies – writes a well-crafted screenplay here, with only a few false notes. In a movie that is otherwise very strong (horrible computer generated foxes notwithstanding), though, those false notes strike painfully. It’s rather nitpicky to point out one bad line of dialog, but this one is a doozy: “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother always knew I could be.” My editor’s most used note while refining my reviews is “tweaked for awkwardness,” and that particular line screams for him to attack with his red pen.
The other unfortunate writing misstep comes in the last scene of the film, which is the absolute worst possible time to stumble, in the form of a final voiceover that feels completely tacked on. It’s the only section of the film with a true voiceover that expresses Cheryl’s inner monolog. That sort of inconsistency makes me scratch my head. Until then, Wild maintained a perfect balance of showing with action instead of telling with overwritten dialog. Unfortunately, that narration can’t help but detract ever so slightly from the power of the final image.
Despite some minor issues, Wild is, without question, one of the best films of 2014. Vallée’s movie should have been honored with at least a best picture nomination by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. See it, and you’ll experience the hardship some must go through to gain redemption. It might also make you ponder, on a deeply personal level, what redemption might cost for yourself in a similar situation.