The greatest strength of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film Wild is its insistence on self-reflection, both on the part of the film’s protagonist (played by Reese Witherspoon) and the audience itself.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, the woman whose memoir the movie is based on. Strayed hikes the Pacific Crest Trail, a test of physical, mental and emotional endurance that pits her against the elements on a journey of, you guessed it, self-reflection. You’ve encountered this story before, whether it be Liam Neeson or Robert Redford or Tom Hanks or James Franco fighting the wild somewhere cold or hot or exotic or rocky. Man versus nature is a subgenre we’re all familiar with, and as such it’s not the most compelling type of story to be told.
But Wild changes one variable in the equation of that well-worn narrative: woman versus nature. Like, with a lady. In putting forth a burgeoning survivalist that is a woman, Wild challenges antiquated notions of men and women not only within the genre but in film.
Cheryl herself isn’t a ground-breaking character. She boasts a sordid past flush with drugs and sex – she’s vaguely reminiscent of a Scorsese character, unraveling and spiraling out of control in the flashes we see of her life before the Pacific Crest Trail.
But unlike Jordan Belfort or Henry Hill or Jake LaMotta, when a female character is wrapped up in the sort of things presented in Cheryl’s past they aren’t traditionally conveyed as compelling. Male characters who sleep around and do drugs are “bad boys.” Female characters who do the same are usually labeled “whores.” And why not? Troubled female characters often enough exist as a source of pain and turmoil for their male counterparts, ala Jenny in Forrest Gump, or that one shark in Deep Blue Sea.
But rather than being presented as an antagonistic plot point Cheryl is presented as a person and we the viewer are not only given greater perspective on her life as a whole, we are most importantly given Cheryl’s own perspective, in her own words, on her actions, and it’s one I won’t soon forget.
As a viewer, being lent a new perspective on a familiar narrative made me challenge my own preconceived notions. What do I really think of a lady sleeping around? What do I think of a man sleeping around? Why do I assume every single man Cheryl runs into on her journey is a rapist? Why isn’t a man versus wild narrative the same as a woman versus wild narrative? Are the two really different or are my own biases differentiating them? Is that a CGI fox?
Man versus nature movies make me wish I had more rugged stubble, and sometimes they make me want to build a bow and arrow. The woman versus nature narrative of Wild made me think, and I’m thankful for the things it made me think about.
Also Laura Dern, who I’ve had a crush on since I saw Jurassic Park when I was three, drops some straight up devastating truth bombs. I mean we’re talking emotional blitzkrieg.