After showcasing a knack for earthy biopics with The Young Victoria, Jean-Marc Vallée broke hearts with his mature handling of Ron Woodroof’s struggle with AIDs in Dallas Buyers Club, the bona fide critical breakthrough for the Canadian director. The film’s two leads scooped awards for their performances at that year’s Oscars, and where many life stories of the ailing tend to be shameless emotional blackmail, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto deserve the praise for playing their parts cool and for letting the tragedy speak for itself. While Reese Witherspoon, the star of Vallée’s followup Wild, aims closer to the throat in her portrayal of Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker Cheryl Strayed, her performance is nevertheless successful in intriguing and unusual ways, mainly through her drifting voiceover narration and in flashback sequences whereby she riffs upon several variations of the same broken character.
In light of this, Vallée’s speciality appears to be in the directing of actors, but to declare so would shortchange the visceral effect he employs here with Wild. Cheryl embarks upon her thousand-mile cross-state journey to overcome the grief incurred by the death of her mother, which led to the dissolution of her marriage through solace sought in drugs and extra-marital sex. But where movies such as 127 Hours and Tracks prioritise their protagonists’ gruelling struggle to the point in which their back stories become superfluous – and where Into the Wild does the opposite – Vallée’s film more successfully combines the explorations of Cheryl’s emotional and physical states in her journey and in the portrayals of her previous life. There are direct links between her past and present, such as in the surrendering of her body to random men and her awareness of her own frailty while traversing the rocky terrains of northern California; these points are in turn intertwined with the recklessness and loneliness that form part of her grieving process.
All aspects are bled together through seamless, dreamlike segues between troubling memories and nightmarish visions triggered by sights or songs. Thus, Wild approaches a stream-of-consciousness narrative style, as ostensibly random thoughts will occasionally inspire excursions into Cheryl’s background, exploring the catalysts of her current position. Even then, these transitions are directed by generally intelligent symbols, especially those driven by music (screenwriter Nick Hornby also has High Fidelity to his name, after all). For instance, Cheryl’s mother Bobbie (Laura Dern, in her second great movie with the word “wild” in the title) is introduced by the Shangri-Las song “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”, which immediately foretells the mother-daughter tragedy that will go on to haunt Cheryl, while her time as a strung-out, promiscuous heroin-addict is soundtracked by “Glory Box”, Portishead’s trippy anthem of female desperation. Literature also decorates the narrative, as Cheryl inscribes quotes in various places along her path in an attempt to make some sort of impact in the world as a form of self-rehabilitation.
But despite managing to be so meticulously interconnected with such an effortless disposition, Wild is also full of genuine surprises for the viewer as well as for Cheryl herself. To note these here would only spoil the movie, but let it be said that Hornby’s screenplay is truly alive and impeccably structured. This is not to mention Vallée’s interpretation of the material, which includes the utility of visually stunning scenery of the Mojave Desert, Oregon’s breathtaking expanses and the misty, mountainous beauty of Washington state, pausing to expound upon these images only when necessary. As with Dallas Buyers Club, the director never wallows in the significance of the story he is presenting, and this is all to Wild‘s strength; it feels less like the screeching dollop of melodrama that it could have been, and more like something vividly real. In essence, Vallée brings the harsh investigations of human physicality seen in Game of Thrones and the Raid films to the grim existentialism of Kelly Reichardt, but Wild breaks its own frontiers, and benefits from a wealth of talent applied wisely and without submission to cloying emotional saturation.