Self-Arrest: Tell-all bio "Wild" becomes a bit too pat in Hollywood’s hands

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Wild / C+

With reality TV and literary memoirs firmly entrenched in popular culture, the “Cult of Me” has firmly staked its claim in our “50 Shades of Same” mass media. Cable channels and bestseller lists are filled with sordid, highly intimate memoirs of grief and shame (and the inevitable triumph that follows), offering a personal counter-narrative to the corporate-controlled messaging that permeates modern society.

Socialites, survivors, and self-loathing white folk join a veritable rogues’ gallery of reformed junkies, con-men, and adulterers to confess their sins and share their tragedies in an attempt to inspire us to overcome our own trivial concerns. And if these authors and personalities should reap some fame and riches along the way, it’s a small reward for the extreme pain they obviously endured. Pain, that had you experienced it, you would surely admit is worse than any you’ve known.

Unfortunately, these momentary (and highly profitable) sensations rarely teach us much about the human condition. Their fans too often mistake narcissism for authenticity and blunt confession for profundity. We are a far cry from the memoirs of old, where venerable men and women reflected back on the entirety of their life experiences in order to confront history, humanity, or some other hifalutin notion.

Which brings us to the film Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 autobiographical best-seller, published 17 years after she hiked 1,100 grueling miles, from Mojave, Calif., to the Oregon-Washington border along the Pacific Coast Trail. When her mother died of cancer in 1991, Strayed went into a self-destructive grief-stricken spiral, cheating on her husband and taking up heroin. Hitting rock bottom, she decided an epic hike was her best possible path to personal redemption.

As the drive toward female empowerment and equality becomes louder (but not necessarily faster) in our society, stories like this, where women find their inner voice or spirit or whatever got lost, have become extremely popular. They act as “if I can do it so can you” self-help field guides, delivering bromides about opening yourself to the possibilities of life or changing your situation in order to change yourself. And though I haven’t read Strayed’s book, the movie does a poor job of connecting her no-doubt-arduous travels with anything approaching authentic transformation.

Instead, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) starts her quest confident but ready to quit if necessary, taking on each new hiking complication (bad weather, poor planning, lack of food and water, suspicious men) with a mix of weariness and wariness. Sometimes she breaks downs. Sometimes she soldiers on. It’s an exhausting, bruising three months but not nearly as punishing or life-altering as, say, the far superior 127 Hours.

Wild’s screenplay (penned by none other than Nick Hornby) relies on flashbacks to provide clichéd context to Strayed’s life. Sad, ruminative, angry, chaotic, and even disjointed fragments of the past interrupt her hike, letting us know how much personal baggage Strayed is shouldering along with her monstrous pack. Some are affecting but mostly the device becomes repetitious and predictable, dutifully doling out small revelations. Hornby’s writing clearly provides some ironic asides, but director Jean-Marc Vallée is too literal and straight-faced to exploit them. Still, he thankfully avoids the dangerous pull of cheap sentimentality, as he did in The Dallas Buyers Club.

Witherspoon, who clearly saw the project as an opportunity to redefine her career, is refreshingly and respectably raw but hardly revelatory. It’s a capable and convincing performance that mostly stands in contrast to the undemanding dreck she has appeared in over the last few years. As for the men in the film (Strayed’s husband, the good Samaritans, the creeps, and the lovers), Wild has no interest in portraying them as anything other than generic encounters. Sadly, Hornby, and Vallée miss the opportunity to examine the real and constant threat that anonymous men represent to women who strike out on their own. Each encounter carries with it the hint of threat but little else. It’s a subtext worthy of deeper reflection and discussion.

More annoyingly, Strayed leaves quotes from great authors and poets at each trail-head, signing her name as co-author. It betrays an underlying egotism and entitlement in the character, one that is later affirmed by trail-mates who dub her “Queen of the PCT.” Though the film tosses it off as a cute aside, I suspect that Hornby is suggesting that, even in the wild, a pretty white girl can still secure favors the rest of us can only dream about.

Wild is rated R and has a running time of 115 minutes.

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