The methodology they (and Vallée’s co-editor Martin Pensa) employ is a fractured editing style akin to Soderbergh’s The Limey, intercutting her point-A-to-point-B physical journey with tiny slivers of flashback, jigsaw-puzzling together how she got to where she’s at. This style serves the dual purpose of creating something of a mystery for viewers (see this image here, understand it there) and appropriating, with a fair amount of accuracy, the rock-skipping of human memory.
And what secrets does that memory contain? As is so often the case with such a daunting and solitary (and dauntingly solitary) pursuit, she’s fleeing bad memories, tragedies, and mistakes. She was raised under, to put it mildly, difficult circumstances. She went to college, engaged with the great writers and feminist thinkers, yet found herself employable only as a waitress. And when the bottom falls out of her world, she seeks out hard drugs and sex with strangers to numb the pain, destroying her marriage and, very nearly, herself.
In several key scenes, Wild shows an admirable interest in engaging with feminist ideas and arguments — mostly in the relationship between Cheryl and her mother (a wonderful Laura Dern), who end up going to college at the same time and wrestling with their own firmly held ideas of what gender roles are and should be, and how to come to terms with them in their own lives. Meanwhile, on Cheryl’s hike, she faces far less abstract challenges, as an attractive woman on a long solo hike presumably would. The filmmakers pay special attention to those implicit and direct threats, indicating how they’re always at least simmering in the background. And when they get ugly, as with a passing, leering hunter whose “tight little ass” comment is followed by, “Can’t a guy give a girl a compliment anymore?,” the scene feels eerily timely to the current conversation about catcalling and harassment.
Yet for as thoughtful and sensitive as those scenes are, there’s something oddly sensationalistic about the handling of Strayed’s sexuality. Look, there’s no question that empty, random sexual encounters aren’t exactly a five-star coping mechanism, but the presentation of female sexual aggressiveness as the ultimate debasement is slightly problematic. What’s worse, Vallée wants to have it both ways; if the sex scenes are tragic emblems of Strayed’s downfall, they’re also shot and cut in the formal language of filmed erotica, carefully framing Witherspoon’s nude body less for emotional impact than for the titillation of an infrequently disrobed star baring all for “the right role.” (Witherspoon, it should be noted, is quite good, even if this seems a calculated attempt to shake her Squaresville image.)
These moments are fleeting, and if they’re put aside, there’s a very good film happening here — intense, thoughtful, superbly crafted, with genuine insights into how we punish ourselves (both mentally and physically) before learning how to not only live with regret, but value it. Yet for all of the trouble Wild takes to get into Strayed’s head, you’d think they might’ve drafted filmmakers with a little bit more experience living in a place like that.
Wild is out Wednesday in limited release.