Saturday, August 5, 2017

Let's Go for a Walk

Film: Wild
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are a few movies in my Oscar list that I’ve come close to watching several times and have just never gotten to. Wild is one of those movies; I’ve checked it out of the library on several occasions and always returned it unwatched. In fact, that almost happened this time, too. I had to renew this to avoid either paying a fine or having to check it out again in the future.

It’s also worth noting that my immediate association to this film was not the expected Into the Wild, but with my internet buddy Kevin, who once thought to walk across the U.S. and made it through the state of Washington before being sidelined by medical issues. The difference is that Kevin wasn’t walking as some sort of redemption for having his life devolve into meaningless sex and heroin.

So yeah, that’s where we’re going with Wild. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who renamed herself “Strayed” after her mother died and her life fell apart, decides to walk the Pacific Crest Trail. In her mind, this is a way for her to redeem herself in the eyes of her dead mother (Laura Dern), since after her mother’s passing, Cheryl spent a good amount of time having, as mentioned above, meaningless sex with pretty much everyone but her husband (Thomas Sadoski) and taking a great deal of heroin. Wild is the story of that internal struggle as well as her external one of having the wrong equipment, being inexperienced, and dealing with weather and potential threats along the trail. Really, that’s it.

So, since there’s less a plot than there is a series of events and flashbacks, I need to think of something else to discuss here. Fortunately, there’s something to discuss, and that’s how much I genuinely liked very little about this film. Strayed punctuates her hike by inscribing a variety of quotes in the sign-in books. She attributes those quotes to the authors and herself, as if she is somehow saying them for the first time. And I’m sorry, but being able to quote Robert Frost and Walt Whitman doesn’t make you a deep and meaningful person. When you attribute that meaning to yourself, it just makes you pretentious.

We could even live with that as being unintentional if there wasn’t a scene near the end of the film where a trio of hikers meets up with her and tells her how inspiring she has been to them on the trail, giving her the nickname of Queen of the PCT. This is followed in short order by her own internal meditation that if she could change anything, she wouldn’t because it’s entirely possible that heroin taught her something. Even this could be forgiven if we weren’t routinely subjected to the packages she gets along the trail from her ex-husband, who tells her in his letters how in awe of her he is. This says nothing of the fact that our Cheryl Strayed is someone who spent who knows how long in meaningless sex and heroin addiction and still looks like Reese Witherspoon.

Look, I get the desire for finding meaning and even for finding redemption. We need closure in our lives and we need to sometimes do something that closes a chapter and opens a new one. Hell, a great deal of the initial impetus for this blog was the desire to do something big and grand, something difficult and challenging, and to be able to look back on it as an accomplishment. But having done that, I don’t think that means anything to anyone other than me.

Ultimately, that’s my problem with Wild. I understand Cheryl Strayed’s desire for personal redemption, but it seems like for her, she can’t have that redemption unless it is a public act. “Look at me redeeming myself,” the movie says. “Look at me being inspirational to you people.”

Despite this, Reese Witherspoon is decent in the film, even if I find the role unpleasant and the film essentially unnecessary. I’m not a complete believer in Reese Witherspoon as an actor, but she handles this role well enough. Laura Dern was nominated in a supporting role, and while I tend to like Laura Dern, I’m not sure she did enough here to warrant the nomination. Her job seemed to be to be a free spirit and then die tragically.

So, no, I didn’t much like Wild. I understand completely why there are people who do, and I even understand why there are people who find the film deep and meaningful and even redemptive. But for me, there’s not a great deal here beyond a great deal of pretension and what seems like a large desire to be patted on the back.

Why to watch Wild: Sometimes a story of redemption is worth watching.
Why not to watch: It’s a lot of navel gazing.


  1. Basically for an inspirational it really wasn't. I like Reese very much and I certainly didn't hate this as I did Into the Wild and its odious protagonist but neither did I think much of it. When it wrapped up I felt no real pleasure at having watched what was basically one long shot of desert roads and trails.

    1. I preferred Into the Wild over this, even though it suffers from a different strain of the same pretension problem. The difference is that the guy in that movie, while a pretentious douchebag, thinks he's doing something to save the world. In Wild, she's just showing everyone how deep and meaningful her personal spiritual journey has been.

      I'm not sure at what point I realized this, but there's a lot of this movie--the scenery matched with the frequent quotes--the reads like a motivational poster.

  2. Yup—I managed only 600 miles, starting in White Rock, BC, crossing the US/Canada border into Blaine, WA, then heading down the I-5 corridor to Portland, OR, where I turned east and followed the Columbia River on the southern/Oregon side until about Umatilla, after which I turned north and ended in Walla Walla, by which time my injured knee was killing me. Don't know if you know this, but I recently walked from Seoul to Busan—a much shorter walk at 340 miles, but more intense in terms of not having so many rest days.

    My own review of "Wild" is here. It could simply be that I saw many parallels between Strayed's experience and my own that I didn't find the film as off-putting as you did. That said, I think your criticisms are all valid. There may be something inherently narcissistic and navel-gazing about going on a long, ambitious walk and attempting to share one's insights. Sharing those insights without sounding preachy or arrogant or otherwise detached from the rest of the human race is a subtle art—one that I haven't mastered. (Some people, like solo-hiking guru Colin Fletcher, don't even try.)

    1. I agree that there is something navel-gazing about this sort of thing and I don't have a real issue with that. Where I take issue with Wild is that it feels so self-aggrandizing.

      It's almost as if Strayed looks at what her past was and doesn't see that maybe she might have made some bad choices. She can't look at the heroin, the abortion, and destroying her marriage as possibly being something that should have been avoided. That bothers me.

  3. We're in agreement on this one. Everything about it was ridiculous, in a bad way. The only thing I really enjoyed about it was Laura Dern's performance. She was excellent so I'm okay with her Oscar nom.

    1. Dern was fine, but it didn't seem like a huge stretch for her to play. "Hey, Laura...go be flighty and artsy and then lie in a hospital bed."