Telluride Review: Jean-Marc Vallée’s ‘Wild’ Starring Reese Witherspoon

Telluride Review: Jean-Marc Vallée’s ‘Wild’ Starring Reese Witherspoon

In the summer of 1995, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed decided to walk the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself without ever having attempted a serious hike in her life. Following the death of her mother and after years of dissolute self-destructive behavior, Strayed found herself divorced, alone, lost and filled with despair. Desperately trying to find her humanity and reclaim her ideal self, she impulsively set out on an unpredictable and grueling odyssey from the Mojave desert through California to Oregon over the course of over 150 days.

A fascinating story, to be sure, but as re-imagined by screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”),Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, is a well-intentioned but misguided and occasionally even garish adaptation of Strayed’s memoir of the same name. Problematically for a story of spiritual redemption, the film never connects to authentic meaning.

Beginning in media res —Strayed, played by Witherspoon, is already deeply into her journey during a particularly harsh moment of duress and struggle— “Wild” then bifurcates its narrative. One section is told in the present, with the protagonist grappling with her demons during an overwhelming and exhausting trek, the other in the past, with Strayed flashing back through her troubled history, wondering how she got there or if she’ll ever make it to wherever she’s going.

Stylistically, “Wild” is deeply marred by its incessant dependence on often manipulative flashbacks. Let’s talk about those flashbacks! There’s the introspective flashback. There’s the jarring and chaotic flashback. The somber, reflective flashback and all sorts of variations that bludgeon the viewer for an arduous two hours. And then of course, there’s the fragmented flashback, wisps of memory flickering into the movie and erratically attempting to confer just how much pain, baggage and suffering Strayed has endured. There are even flashbacks within flashbacks. Let’s not even get into the flashbacks that act as musical video montages to Paul Simon, The Hollies or some classic pop song meant to confer extra profundity. “Wild” is inelegantly told and ceaselessly repeats itself ad nauseum.

Employing a lot of music that’s mercifully heard mostly in fleeting glimpses (aside from the full-on aforementioned musical montage), “Wild” wants to be a Lucinda Williams song —a little dark, a little sexy, boozy, hard-bitten, but eventually triumphant. But its sloppy and repetitive approach to form keeps that goal at an echoed distance.

Part of the problem is that Strayed’s backstory is withheld and the audience is meant to piece it together while she concurrently conducts an inner monologue that becomes an unfortunate and often unnecessary voice-over (variations on “shit, this sucks” fail to constitute riveting commentary on her trip). Of course, it’s not difficult to assemble her backstory, but Strayed is strangely composed when she starts her journey, which undercuts the sense of desperation her voyage is purportedly built upon.

She’s divorced, has been sleeping around and has done a lot of drugs, but not until much later into the picture do her transgressions appear to have down any damaging. And so for a large chunk of the picture, the audience is forced to ask themselves why this woman would compel herself to undergo such torture. Gradually, we learn that Strayed is heartbroken over the loss of her mother. But her parent’s death still feels insufficient as an impetus towards becoming an unrepentant heroin addict and tramp while married to a man who is loving and understanding enough to rescue his wife from a drug den. “Wild” suggests Strayed is monumentally unhappy and scarred from various childhood traumas —an abusive, alcoholic father; a loving, but lost mother— but never successfully or convincingly rationalizes the canyon-like jump from discontented and sad to full-blown self-destructive and hopeless.

And Vallée’s approach never lands its punches. When the movie attempts to be vivid, instead it comes off as a jumbled collage of images that a first-year film school editor would think amateurish. And various bursts of disarming humor as an attempt to lighten the mood are either lame or fall flat. Ironically, “Wild” is never present in the moment like its character strives to be when she’s quoting poetry by Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor or Walt Whitman. “Wild” can never really pick up steam because it’s constantly ping-ponging from present to past.

Witherspoon is valiantly unvarnished and raw in the movie, but one shouldn’t mistake some nudity and no make-up for a tour-de-force performance. “Wild” consists of Witherspoon grimacing through the hardships of her character’s self-imposed atonement while reflecting back on her life, and not a lot more. Her spiritually worn-out and emotionally fatigued routine eventually grow as tired as the narrative. It’s a respectable performance, especially when compared to the last few years of vapid roles in vapid films, but certainly not transformative; the predictions of the “Reese-surgence” have already been overstated.

Co-starring Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, and Kevin Rankin, some audiences are certainly going to connect with the movie’s self-empowering themes of resolve and perseverance, but the film’s rarely communicates anything deeper than the Hallmark card variety “most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose" (yes, this is an actual quote from Strayed’s book "Tiny Beautiful Things").

It’s a self-help field guide full of clichés and platitudes about not surrendering the joys of life and putting oneself directly in the path of various beauties. Most of these sentiments are unsubtle, mawkishly told, and hardly ever do they resonate beyond the bromide. It’s important to note that in the right hands, these universal themes of life, loss and overcoming obstacles can be quite moving (the last 10 minutes of “127 Hours” runs circles around most of “Wild”), they are the building blocks of most narratives, but as reduced here they are dull and uninspired.

“Wild” never really earns its hard-fought struggle for redemption and personal reinvention. Witherspoon’s walkabout is punishing physically, but never as remotely emotionally affecting as any of the survival narratives that dominated 2012 (even “Gravity” carried more emotional weight and that’s not saying a lot). Instead, the movie mistakes suffering and hardship for accomplishment; every grunt, scrape, bruise and laceration is meant to grant gravitas to Witherspoon’s ordeal. “Wild” attempts to say something about personal paths, journeys and the search for oneself when spiritually unmoored, but the quest rarely plumbs beneath the Oprah’s Book Club-friendly surface. [C-]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2014 Telluride Film Festival to date by clicking here.

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged , , , , ,


Comments

Will

This reviewer may not have had to struggle with the abrupt loss of a parent. His dismissal of that as impetus for Strayer’s self-destructive behavior is ignorant and childish.

Thomass

I was also very disappointed by this film. Reading the positive build up I just expected more from the film. The movie drags over this long long trek without even good scenery to hold interest.I felt they had a good premise but it just did not come through in the execution.I have seen worse movies of course but I expected more here.

Linn

Continued …even more courage to share her life’s story. She exposed the dark parts that most keep hidden. I read the book first and perhaps that affected my opinion of the movie because I completely disagree with this review as I loved watching the scenes come to life… I have tremendous respect for Cheryl for her bravery, perseverance, and honesty.

Linn

As a 40 something woman, I felt a connection to this movie and to Cheryl Strayed. What a courageous woman! To head out on a journey of this magnitude took an incredible amount of courage and

charlotte

Finally, a review I can agree with. I found the book too to be strangely disconnected – the themes are interesting but told in such a self involved way that I found it difficult to care – either in print or on the screen.

Chris L.

I couldn’t entirely articulate why the movie didn’t live up to its potential, but I think you have done an extremely good job of honestly addressing the movie’s main shortcomings while pointing out the few things that it does well. Although it tackles different issues, I thought Into the Wild (2007) in a much more genuine way illustrated joy, grief, and personal transformation, and the music in that movie brought it to life, but here it grew as tiresome as the choppy, pandering flashbacks. Witherspoon is simply not believable in this role. This has been one of the very few movies in the last several years that I debated leaving before it was over, but my hope was that it would (totally) redeem itself. It never did.

Rachel

Yikes, Rodrigo. Borrow much? "This book is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song…" -quote from Dwight Garner 2012 book review on ‘Wild’ in the New York Times.

thomas pace

Rodrigo Perez, the reviewer, should invest in a spell-check program and review some basic grammar rules.

Tom

Blah.

Heidi

Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the theater?

Geez, this is one of those reviews that reads like a D- and then you get to the end and it's a C-. It also sounds like the reviewer really had issues with the subject matter, no objectivity. I hated 127 Hours and have little desire to see this, either. It's a wonder movies like this get made at all.

Jane

"But her parent's death still feels insufficient as an impetus towards becoming an unrepentant heroin addict and tramp while married to a man who is loving and understanding enough to rescue his wife from a drug den." Are you freakin' kidding me??? Did I really just read this moralistic claptrap in a review? Trust me, I read no further.

jervaise brooke hamster

I want to bugger Reece Witherspoon, with my dick not a spoon ! ! ! (as the bird was in 1994 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

Joe

Also Laura Dern NEEDS a comeback. I LIVE FOR HER screams in Jurassic Park. Maybe playing an extra in Wild (the woman who laughs/cries/screams) is good for her. I just picture her hysterically laughing, insanely weeping over dinos in the California mountains whilst hiking with Reese (fan fiction). Anyone remember the insanity that was Dern in JP? And by insanity, I mean LIFE!

Joe

Damn. Disappointed by this review. I enjoyed Strayed's book. It's phenomenal. However, all of the criticisms of the review mirror the actual book without context. Whenever I heard Wild was being adapted into film, I legit expected a Zach Braff-inspired, indie music-filled, Eat Pray Love adaptation, and this review proved me "right." But read the book! READ it. It's great. I also think it'll be much better than any "Oprah" rec (i.e. give it a try and love/learn). Ps if you think Oprah has Osdar bait, tell than to the Hundred Foot Journey (it's not a thing).

Damian

More Oprah endorsed schmaltz, meant as Oscar bait, with cloying and syrupy New Age trappings.
The hype is meant to get the Academy to feed at the trough. Can't we have anything subtle that we value, where everything isn't totally obvious.

Meh

Who really wanna see Into The Wild and 127 hours again or another wilderness version of Eat, Pray, Love with Laura Jeanne Poon? Every time I see Reese all I can think of is: "I'm an American, I have the right to stand on American ground. Do you know who I am?". Besides, she can't act. Her overrated performance in Walk The Line was completely dependent on the phenomenal job Joaquin Phoenix did. Anyone else in his role and I don't think she would've been able to pull it off that well. Which is why it was even more annoying that she won an Oscar and he didn't. He was robbed.

Fat Connie

Why do Playlist reviews always read like the musings of entitled-film-school-20-somethings who haven't yet ventured out into the world or experienced trauma or loss or heartbreak or done anything resembling adult living? There are respectful, generous ways to transmit your feelings on this film – on any film – but the aim here seems instead to be snarky takedown and seems easy to source back to male inadequacy issues. Let a woman review Wild please. They may dislike the film too but I'd rather hear their reasoning than the person who wrote this review and who probably needs advanced therapy

Stergios

Jean-Marc Vallée is a really gifted filmmaker and Reese Witherspoon seems to be at her best here in terms of acting, but yeah, "let’s not mistake some nudity and no make-up for a tour-de-force performance." The overall reaction to her performance prior to watching the film is just too much. It's such an Oscar vehicle movie from her, it's almost shameless. There's another thing giving a noteworthy performance despite having onvious acting limitations like Witherspoon and Bullock and giving the one tour-de-force performance after the other and yet being snubbed from the Oscars again and again in terms of a win, like Jessica Chastain and Marion Cotillard since her win in 2008. The fact that Witherspoon gets such an Oscar buzz and an acting genius like Cotillard gets snubbed so relentlessly over the few years from the Academy Awards is really disheartening. Of course, it has nothing to do with Witherspoon, but it has to do with the Academy, who keeps on acknowledging the work of stars with indisputable talent but also indisputable acting limitations like Witherspoon and keep on snubbing the tour-de-force work of phenomenal artists. I mean, Witherspoon is certainly not the actress that deserves a second Oscar nomination if Cotillard hasn't scored one until now, no doubt about that.

Parker

Chaotic flashbacks? From Nick Hornby? Eh, I bet you are a person, who couldn't follow nor the Lost's storyline…:)

lee

Have to say I always find Playlist's reviews untrustworthy, sorry guys, but they leave me bewildered, this is a prime example, Hollywood reporter and Variety think this movie's great, of course critics don't have to agree but some are more seasoned and the effect of so many competing critical voices is muddled and serves only to cast shade over films worth checking out for yourself. This is a great site for news but when festival time comes I'd much rather get a roundup of the major reviews, too many opinionated critics spoil the movies.

wenn

Could you describe her nude scenes?

delboi

nice review

Jerome

"Hallmark Card source material"? Clearly you did not read the book, Mr. Perez, as it is far from that. Also, so much for any attempts at accuracy in journalism. The sentences you claim are "an actual quote from the Strayed book upon which this is based" are not in fact from Wild. You are entitled to your opinion about both the book and the film, of course, but I would think The Playlist would care that your reporting be even remotely accurate. In this review you have grossly misrepresented the book because you've very obviously not read it.

Felicia

Who is this Rodrigo…and why do I not care what he thinks about this film or anything else…I detect misogyny….?

Leigh

Okay, I lied, a read a little more, even though I know I shouldn't have. Here is part of the last sentence of your opening paragraph: "…over the course of over 150 days."

Rodrigo, sir, you are a moron.

Leigh

The following is part of the first sentence of your article: "…without having ever having attempted…"

I decided at that point not to read the rest.

Erik

Sounds exactly like what I imagined this movie to be – an extra-bland and equally tacky version of 'Into the Wild'.

James

This article's last sentence strikes dead the full review, which is ungenuie.

Jimmi

Oh snap. Honesty is refreshing.

Peter

This "Witherspoon comeback" was already stupid. She's done for and she can't act.

Edward F

How much nudity?

oogle monster

It’s a respectable performance especially when compared to her last few years of vapid roles, but certainly not transformative; the premature predictions of the “Reese-surgence” have already been overstated. —> Thank goodness. Witherspoon's best roles and performances are long behind her. Her post Walk The Line career is abysmal, although I will give her producing choices some credit. Knowing how beige the Academy is, she will probably still get nominated anyway…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *