Why Was ‘Wild’ — a Story of Female Empowerment — Written and Directed by Men?

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Wild is a well made and often invigorating film, yet so full of contradictions that thinking about it turns into an argument with oneself. Based on the memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed, it tells the story of a young woman’s physical journey of psychological self-discovery, paralleling her arduous 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail with the demons she must finally face on that long, solo trek. Along the way, she encounters incidents of casual and aggressive sexism that are so of-the-moment, they seem less like drama than responsive commentary. And yet, those scenes butt up uncomfortably against a decidedly old-fashioned, sex-negative worldview, filtered through a decidedly male gaze. And it is thus worth asking: in the year 2014, why was this story of female identity and second- and third-wave feminism written and directed by men?

This is not to imply that the direction or writing are particularly poor — quite the contrary, in fact. The screenplay is by Nick Hornby, the High Fidelity author who’s carved out an unexpected side career adapting female memoirs (his last screenwriting credit was An Education); the direction is by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club). Together, they find several effective methods of putting us in the head of Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she goes on her grueling walkabout, and make no mistake, getting into a solitary character’s headspace is not the easiest task, cinematically speaking.

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.