Howard Adelman

Wild is the third biopic I missed last fall and watched last week after I had seen The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. It too is an adaptation from a book and, like The Theory of Everything, from a biography written by a woman, Cheryl Stayer wrote Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012); the biography documents the author’s flashback memories from her past and her current experiences as she travels in 1996 from the Mojave Desert in California to the Cascade Mountains in the northwest of the U.S. However, in this film, the total focus is on the heroine who is definitely not in the same intellectual league as Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking. She does make a journey, but not to uncover some great mystery in our world and thereby transform it. She just wants and needs to find herself.

One of the great benefits of writing a review well after a movie first appears on the screens of North America is that the writer of the review is not limited by an implicit agreement to avoid spoilers. In writing a review, the understood moral is that I must not give the plot away lest the movie be partially spoiled for the patron. In this case, I am not only writing a review months after the film was screened, and months after most of my readers will have seen the film, but the movie has very little plot. It is episodic and not plot-driven. It is much more of a character study. Further, the outcome, in the sense of her completing the trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, is known.  The focus is on the journey, not the end. Finally, I could and did read other reviews, and it became clearer to me why I write reviews. For even the best of those other reviews disappoint me.

Some of them are written exceptionally well and have numerous insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. But I am still left dissatisfied because I want to read, and, hence write, a different kind of review. Paradoxically, movies are images and music, but I want to offer a lesson in anatomy and physiology rather than repeat what can be seen on the screen and heard while watching the movie. I want to read and write about the bones of a movie and how the body of the work of art functions. As I scratch below the surface, I feel that I am just beginning to understand how movies really work and why I either love them, am indifferent to or hate them. This was a movie I liked and enjoyed, but never fell in love with. Why?

One terrific scene from the movie illustrates the point. The film opens sometime well into the trek. Reese Witherspoon, who plays Cheryl Stayer, and does so with great brilliance – I think we are in a golden era of great acting, directing and cinematography – is not gazing at the spectacular panoramic scene that surrounds her from her mountain perch. That scene is in view for us. But Cheryl Stayer is preoccupied with her bleeding feet, particularly one toenail on her big toe that she has obviously damaged and that is black, blue, bloody and obviously loose. Like a loose tooth, she pulls it off by herself and screams in pain to the wilderness around her. It is clearly not just the pain of an extraction, but a primal scream that goes far beyond the agony and acute pain that she had been suffering and that increased tenfold when she tore her nail off by herself.

In the process of her self-surgery, she inadvertently kicks one of her boots that she had taken off and it cascades down the mountain cliff. Instead of considering whether it is feasible to go after it, in frustration and fury at herself, she heaves the other boot down after the first. Then, without ever attempting to search for the boots, defiantly and unforgiving of these items that betrayed her, she fashions a set of clogs from duck tape and rubber flip flops she happened to have in her back pack. Who carries flip flops in a backpack while hiking through deserts and mountains? Who throws her boot away in a temper tantrum? Who is so careless in placing her boot after she takes it off on a rocky mountain perch that she could inadvertently kick it down the side of a mountain? At the same time, who has both the ingenuity and the grit to continue at that point?

It becomes clear that the boots were the source of the problem. They were too small. But why is she hiking eleven hundred miles with boots that are too small for her feet? It is very clear that the single scene is a metaphor for her whole character – she is responsible for inflicting most of the pain and suffering she endures on her own self. She over-prepares by acquisitions that she insists on carrying with her, but under-prepares in terms of training and making prudent and reasonable choices. She has a short fuse and has a pattern of self-defeating gestures that only make matters worse. But we never learn what her deeper hamartia, in Aristotle’s phrase, is. What is the fundamental frailty that brings about her misfortune and descent into hell? On the one hand, it seems like personal circumstances. On the other hand, she holds herself responsible for her own fall, but we never get to the core of that weakness.

She is clearly on a journey to understand and rein in that part of herself. And she has some great tools to do the job. She is blessed with grit and determination. What would and did defeat far more experienced hikers is but grist for her confrontation with the hardships the world throws at us and her. Just as she is willing to tear away her torn toenail by herself, the trip is an exercise in self-therapy. She will not set aside the ugliness she finds in or about herself, or displace what she discovers onto others, but confronts what she remembers and what she experiences directly and functionally – but only after she has her temper tantrum.

Of course, there are other problems. Her backpack is far too heavy as soon revealed in another delightfully comic sight gag when she tries to heft it up on her back. She is carrying too much physical baggage as well as the baggage of memories from her past that she needs to leave behind. Why would she bring along a portable saw? Why is she carrying a backpack that has been dubbed the monster by other hikers she comes across? But she receives therapy from her psychological illness by the practical advice of a station master along the way. He encourages her to leave many items behind in the free box from which other trekkers can help themselves. She should only carry what she needs to allow her to move on.

Thus the movie is not just episodic. It offers a series of metaphors for living. It is a movie that is neither about facts, on the one hand, or theories and ideas on the other hand. It is a movie about symbols – to reveal through what is seen that which cannot otherwise be seen. The symbols are not pre-selected, but simply emerge along the way from the world around that accompanies us all on our journey through life. Further, there are two sides to each symbol, the revelations of a prudent and practical person who is, at the very same time, very irrational and troubled.

Everyone who watches the movie gets the symbolism either directly or subliminally. The dialectical conflict is not between good and bad, but between functional and dysfunctional. For the issue is not uncovering some deep secret, but facing oneself and learning to get on in life. It is not about desire to produce something extraordinary, but is about survival. Cheryl Stayer learns to be true to the self-chosen surname of her mother Bobbi – she can stick it out. For her mother, played with verve and passion by Laura Dern, gave her children her unstinting love though married to an abusive alcoholic man.

Of course, the psychological motivation of why she falls apart when her mother dies is left unexplored. Shit just happens. Similarly, we never learn why her marriage to a seemingly caring man (Tomas Sadowski) falls apart, why she becomes totally dissolute sexually and eventually a heroin addict. These flashbacks in her memory are juxtaposed with the challenges she encounters and overcomes in three months of walking on the Pacific Crest Trail. She is reversing her fall. Cheryl literally and figuratively crosses a desert and climbs a mountain range. The three terrible “d”s – death, divorce and drugs – can do that to a person, but why this person?

There is another scene that occurs later in the film when she runs across a grandmother taking a stroll with her grandson. The grandson asks Cheryl if she wants to hear him sing. She welcomes the idea. The boy of about six immediately begins singing the first verses of Red River Valley in a beautiful voice. Red River Valley is an adorable Canadian folksong from Métis country that my folklorist academic colleague, Edith Fowke, traced to its nineteenth century roots. The scene warms the cockles of one’s heart. Is Cheryl the cowboy? Is the song an indication that the pain at her mother’s loss has metamorphosed through the trek into sweet nostalgia? Is the message that the exorcism has been successful? In the Woody Guthrie version, the first three verses are:

From this valley they say you are going

We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile

For they say you are taking the sunshine

That has brightened our pathways awhile.

Come and sit by my side, if you love me

Do not hasten to bid me adieu

Just remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy who loved you so true.

I’ve been thinking a long time, my darling

Of the sweet words you never would say

Now, alas, must my fond hopes all vanish

For they say you are going away

Perhaps that’s the alternative life – a life of commitment and true love rather than wasting one’s life away. For the film ends with a note that Cheryl marries again, settles down and has two children. But in the interim, she is a hobo, even though she insists and reiterates to a reporter from The Hobo Times that, “I am not a hobo.” Mo McRae, the reporter, responds, “you sound like a feminist.” Thou protesteth too much. After all, Cheryl is currently homeless and is tramping across the country. On the other hand, she is no longer a down-and-out derelict. So the designation and the protest at that classification are both true. This is another moment of self-revelation and discovery on her path to self-healing, though this time the transformation come though a humorous rather than touching scene. And so Cheryl in this self-imposed trial of endurance does walk her way back to the woman her mother thought she was.

The scary scenes do not come from her encounters with a rattlesnake or a fox, but from men, some who appear predatory and turn out to be kind and considerate, and some who self-evidently are but through an act of fate are unable to act out their role as animals who prey on other members of their species. Through it all, Reese Witherspoon shivers in the rain and shakes in the snow, sweats in the heat and swears at the tasteless and almost inedible cold oatmeal she ends up eating. When she takes a step out of her trek to put on lipstick and enjoy the world and the men in it, the cosmetic saleswoman advises her to first take care of her body odour.

All of these experiences and encounters in an arduous journey pale into insignificance when compared to the life she led after her mother died and before she set out on her trek. The problem is that we as viewers were allowed to glimpse the self-inflicted wounds of that previous life, but were neither permitted to experience or truly understand that prior life. So the memories are somewhat surreal, detached from the character we are watching on the screen. This is not because the acting is unconvincing, but because the structure of the film chosen by the Canadian director, Jean-Marc Vallée, and the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, does not allow the 38-year-old actor convincingly playing a 26-year-old woman to do her work. Thus, although the flashbacks arise naturally from the memories of Cheryl during the trek, they are sufficient for us only to weakly grasp the horror of the previous life, not taste or feel it as we do with her trek. Though perfectly plausible, we certainly never come to comprehend it.

“In the way of beauty” is a homily of Cheryl’s mother. It is not a reference to the cinematographer’s landscape. Yves Belanger’s natural, even rapturous and rugged portrait of sweeping untamed beauty, stands in stark contrast with Cheryl’s life from its early beginnings with an abusive, alcoholic stepfather that turns into a monumental mess when her mother dies and she descends into a precarious world of perilous influences. Her mother’s dominant norm may sound like a guiding Leibnizian principle of the best of all possible worlds, but it is really about finding the best in this godawful world, not simply accepting it as the best. Though you can quit this life and its perambulations anytime, should you?

Life is a journey, not a destination; we can only make it alone as much as we can be helped along the way by strangers as well as family and friends. But those encounters may be dangerous and we must be wary. Thus, although the Augustinian trip from sin to salvation is an interior journey, it can enjoy the assist of the external and turn into an uplifting tale of recovery helped along enormously by the rough but serene landscape of America. The jagged interruptions of Cheryl’s misery memoir with montages of memory and reminiscences never deflect from the uplifting tale of grit and determination, of self-healing resurrection. The narrative transition between the two worlds relying upon visual analogies works, but not the portrait of horror of the early years and the period after her mother’s death. As snippets of memory to inform the viewer, yes, but insufficient to identify with the experience.

Hence the guiding quotes from America’s classic and contemporary writers that Cheryl Stayer as an aspiring writer inscribes along her journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson taught her that progress is an unfolding. Two roads may diverge in a wood for Robert Frost, but you can retrace your steps and take another route. As Emily Dickenson wrote, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” Cheryl is a woman of today struggling with yesterday as she moves towards tomorrow and thus as much of a feminist as Adrienne Rich. Even James Michener, whose writing she dissed even though loved by her mother as they attended college together, has some redeeming qualities. Though he pushed encounters with people for experience rather than the solace of a lonely journey, he, after all, also loved the swirl and flight that words provide as they struggle with human emotions.

This film is a spring comedy, not a summer romance. The film is about self-transformation, not a transformation of society. That society always remains the same. That does not mean that it does not have its faults and is immune to criticism. The film, after all, is a reveal-all movie. But any miserable existence in that society can be replaced by a happier one. But akin to a summer romance, that society resists change and transcendental transformation. But instead of confronting it head on as Stephen Hawking and, much more so, Alan Turing do, escape and reflection in rather than of an idyllic world, an immersion rather than a search for one, can provide an answer. But for all three, life is life when it is lived in reflection.