Not just a pretty picture post card of a movie: Academy Award nominee Reese Witherspoon as the young author Cheryl Strayed making her lonely but determined way through a beautiful but less than welcoming landscape in Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s understated adaptation of Strayed’s memoir of her adventures hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
One of the smartest things director Jean-Marc Vallée does in Wild, his film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is avoid turning passages of nature writing from Strayed’s book into pretty motion picture post cards. He lets cinematographer Yves Bélanger do very little landscape painting with his camera. The gorgeous scenery is there---the California scrub desert. The mountain trails and mountaintop vistas. The Oregon rainforests. Crater Lake. Smith Rock. The raging Columbia River---along with the flora and fauna, but you have to look away from the action to see them. The scenery is scenery, background against which the story unfolds, a setting for the actors to play upon and work with. When he does give in and indulge in some nature photography it’s usually as much for thematic as cinematic effect. He’s placing his heroine in context as a very small person making her lonely but determined way through an indifferent even hostile if beautiful world.
This is actually in keeping with Strayed’s book. Wild, her recounting of the eleven-hundred mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Columbia River and the border of Oregon and Washington she took all alone in 1994 when she was twenty-six, is about a person not a place or a series of places. The hike was self-prescribed therapy for getting over her adored mother’s death. Although writers like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau are among her literary heroes and models, it wasn’t their books she carried in her backpack (and burned in clumps of finished pages in her campfire each morning to lighten her load as she went) and Wild is not like My First Summer in the Sierra or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers in being a combination of travelogue and nature writing. Wild is a confessional. There’s plenty of fine travel writing and nature writing in the book, but the territories she maps and explores in greatest detail and with the most intense focus are her own heart and psyche. Strayed set out to walk herself out of a life that had become desultory, unhappy, and self-destructive and into a new and better one. It’s a journey into self and the outer landscapes she describes are reflective of inner ones she’s trying to come to terms with. Which may explain why the writer who came to mind when I was reading Wild was one I don’t recall her mentioning.
Sue me, I’m an English professor.
Wild is Strayed’s Divine Comedy, her personal allegory of her confrontation with her sins and her ultimate redemption. Her Virgil and her Laura is the ghost of her mother. Well, except that she isn’t nearly as grandiose, pompous, religious, or humorless as Dante was. Her Comedy is comic. My point is that the passages of nature writing, which are excellent, vivid and illuminating, set up situations. They’re in there because they’re where something happened to Strayed and what caused some of those things to happen. They’re scenery.
Another smart move Vallée makes---and for this one he has help from screenwriter Nick Hornby---is not to let Strayed tell his story---which, of course, is her story---for him. It would have been easy, and must have been tempting, to have his star Reese Witherspoon, reading straight from the book, give voice over narration or for Hornby to have turned passages from the book’s narration into soliloquies for Witherspoon to deliver onscreen as if thinking out loud. That happens but a lot less often than Vallée could have gotten away with.
Either Hornby took a minimalist approach to adapting Strayed’s writing for the screen, using as few of her words as he could, even skimping on words you’d think would be most useful to someone writing a movie, words that Strayed exchanged out loud with other people—dialog!---or Vallée whittled his script down in pre-production, on set, or during editing.
The people Strayed describes meeting along the way are gregarious, talkative, open, and voluble. They give Strayed plenty of material to tell their stories with. Transferred to the screen, they’ve become more reticent. With only two exceptions, the characters in the movie’s present are laconic, even taciturn---the characters we meet in flashbacks are chattier, but a lot of what they have to say is exposition---and they reveal themselves through dropped hints, gestures, affect, costume, and business. Often what they say is important for the tone not the actual words and when their words are important they’re important as signposts, trail markers, telling us where we are in the story at the moment and where the story’s headed next. In a silent movie, it would have been handled with a title card.
For all much of the dialog matters, Wild might as well be a silent movie. For long stretches it is a silent movie. Witherspoon is alone on screen with no one to talk to but herself, which she does sometimes, but those are times when Strayed is either trying to amuse herself, reassure herself, or is just so tired she’s practically delirious. They aren’t times when Vallée needs her to talk to the audience to tell us what’s going on because he doesn’t trust us to get it from the images or because he failed to find a way to tell us with images. He’s not afraid of silence. Silence is one of the trials Strayed had to endure on her hike. It was also an aspect---a condition, like the heat and the cold, and a physical feature even, as much a part of the landscape as the juniper trees---of the hike she came to appreciate as a beauty. He lets us feel the silence, lets it sink in.
Wild has an excellent soundtrack but Vallée has used the music as transitions not as cover.
And the third smart choice Vallée made was to ignore the movie star who’s at the center of his movie and focus on the actress.
Vallée puts Witherspoon to use. There are very few moments when he lets his camera linger on her looking beautiful because there are very few moments when she looks beautiful. And it isn’t just that she’s there to work at playing a character and not be photographed being a movie star. Vallée does photograph her---the same way he photographs the scenery. She’s part of the overall visual effect like the scenery and the props and costumes. He blends her in. Mainly, though, he makes sure we see Cheryl Strayed not Reese Witherspoon.
It’s similar to what he did with Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club except in that one the effect was more dramatic because of the shock of the sight of McConaughey not being a movie star and our amazement at what McConaughey had put himself through in order to make himself not be a movie star. In Wild, the shock is milder and occurs when it dawns on us that for a long time we’d forgotten we were watching a movie star, thinking instead we were watching a fairly ordinary person looking tired, dirty, hungry, and in pain.
And the smart thing Witherspoon does is let herself be used as a prop and as scenery. Witherspoon was the boss on this set. She bought the rights to the book and produced the movie. Wild could be called a vanity production but if vanity was at work it was an artist’s vanity. Witherspoon the businesswoman needed a name above the title to sell tickets. But Witherspoon the filmmaker hired herself to act not to simply star. A lot of what directors do onscreen and onstage is compose pictures within a frame. Action is created by changing the pictures. Often this is a matter of arranging and rearranging the furniture, so to speak. Good actors understand that an important part of their job is to be part of the furniture.
The other important part of the job is to play a part.
The problem for Witherspoon there is she doesn’t have the juiciest part to play. That’s because Strayed is an observer. In the book, her main subject for observation is herself. Watching a character in a movie watch herself is potentially a snooze or two hours of increasing annoyance. (In adapting Strayed’s book for the screen, there’s the meta- complication arising from Strayed’s having written Wild nearly twenty years after the fact working as an established writer from the extensive journals she kept as a budding writer and putting herself in the position of watching herself watching herself.) It’s a real trick to make that interesting and effective onscreen without resorting to cinematic gimmickry. (See Roger Ebert on Adaptation.) Offhand, I can’t think of another movie that pulls it off. The trick for Witherspoon and Vallée was to make us observe Strayed the way Strayed observes herself in the book. And, damn, if the trick doesn’t work.
So Wild is well-directed, well-written, and well-acted in being under-directed, under-written, and underplayed. There are moments, many moments, that could have used more directing, more writing, and more acting and these involve the movie’s other characters.
I don’t know if this was a matter of casting. All the supporting actors are competent but few of them have a striking screen presence. I’ll have to watch it again to be sure, but it seemed as if Vallée just wasn’t interested in their characters except as facts. Strayed left family and friends behind, she met people along the trail, here they are.
As I said, I think it was a good thing on the whole that Vallée and Hornby were sparing in their use of Strayed’s writing. But also like I said the people she met gave her lots of material to work with and she took excellent advantage. Strayed has a gift for literary portraiture (and caricature) and I think Vallée and Hornby could have taken better advantage of that and allowed characters to have a little more to say for themselves.
There are three notable instances when a character is allowed to get chatty and in both cases it would have been better if they’d been a little less forthcoming. One is a road construction worker who gives Strayed a lift, a meal, and bed for the night in his and his wife’s trailer when she’s lost, hungry, exhausted, and on the verge of giving up. But his function is to be there as a function of the plot. The scenes with him emphasize the predicament Strayed has placed herself in as a young woman out in the wilderness on her own with no real plan and no idea of the trouble she’s facing. So he’s only interesting in that he poses the question of whether he’s a threat or a friend, a question that’s going to keep Strayed guessing about everyone she meets the whole rest of the way. The second is a non-threatening, over-friendly, possibly deranged journalist who coming upon Strayed as she’s trying to hitchhike her way back to the trail after having wandered off it for a while mistakes her for someone on the bum. He doesn’t offer her a ride. He attempts to interview her for a publication called The Hobo Times. He has a problematic interviewing technique, though. He doesn’t listen to a word Strayed says in answer to his questions. The scene is a comic set-piece and it’s fun but it goes on a little too long. The third is a thirsty bowhunter who is also over-friendly but in the creepiest way. He is a definite threat and provides the movie with its most intense moment of suspense. The construction worker is played by W. Earl Brown, the journalist by Mo McRae, and the hunter by Charles Baker. All three have striking screen presences.
Of course someone else in the cast has a striking screen presence and that’s why she’s in the cast playing the part she plays.
Although she’s dressed down and has an eccentric beauty for a movie star, Dern is used by Vallée as a movie star. She’s luminous, she’s joyful and joy-inspiring, a delight to watch, and of course being a very good actress she does more than simply let herself be photographed but that’s her main purpose here. Vallée doesn’t photograph her as a movie star, though, but as someone who we can see would be a star in someone else’s life and whose presence would be sorely missed. And we miss her when she’s not onscreen. But I wouldn’t call her part a supporting character. It’s an extended cameo. In fact, it’s not so much a character at all but an object of desire. If you want to see Dern deliver an Award-worthy performance as a true supporting player, you should watch her in The Fault in Our Stars in which she plays another mother only this time roles are reversed. It’s the daughter who’s dying and the mother who’s going to be left to grieve and Dern is utterly heartbreaking in her determination not to give into her grief prematurely. That doesn’t have anything to do with her work in Wild, of course. What’s important in Wild is that she makes us understand why a daughter would need to do something drastic to get over the loss of such a mother.
I think the movie would have been better if Vallée had included a few more true supporting characters played by actors with striking screen presences but I feel I’m not conveying how much I enjoyed it while I was watching it anyway. It’s a fine movie that does a good job of being faithful to the book it’s adapted from while being something more than just a faithful adaptation. Unlike Wild the book, Wild the movie is not a confessional.
By the way, think the Dante comparison was a little too much? Me too. How about Wordsworth? Wild the book is Strayed’s Prelude in prose, her account of her simultaneously discovering herself as the writer and person she is.
Wild the movie is an epic romance, a heroine’s journey told as a tale of adventure and escape, illustrated with the occasional pretty post card from the trail.
Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Kevin Rankin, W. Earl Brown, Mo McRae, Charles Baker, and Keene McRae. Rated R. Now in theaters.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Stayed is available in hardcover and paperback and for kindle at Amazon.