Oscars Countdown 2015 - Wild

Ensign Lestat's Oscars Countdown, 07/02/2015


Nominations - Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon), Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern)

We first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) when she's at her wits end, feet covered in blisters and blood, and her enormous backpack knocking over her shoe, sending it careening down a bottomless cavern. Pan out, and we see that Cheryl's on a cliff in the middle of nowhere. And that's just how she likes it, or she will by the end of the film.

Based on the memoir of the real Cheryl Strayed, 'Wild' is the story of the reckless and emotionally dangerous Cheryl on her pursuit to complete the Pacific Crest Trail - over a 1000 miles of rocky wilderness - on her own, with next to no hiking experience. Along the way she meets some great people and some creepy people. 

Having watched the film reluctantly, I am surprised to read that it's a true story. The script was adapted by Nick Hornby and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (of 'Dallas Buyers Club' fame). While it's a very accomplished film with apt and relevant flashbacks, it is so cliched that it stops being fun pretty much as soon as it starts.

I haven't read the memoir, and cannot attest to its faithfulness to the life of the real woman, but, I do know that the trouble with cliches is that they're called that only because we're so used to them happening. The trouble with the film is that the central character and her actions have been done to death by Hollywood, and hence her actions don't shock us, they just bore us. She's a struggling waitress with high intelligence and no money. She's cheating on her husband with every guy she can lay eyes on and is soon high on drugs. That's so new to us! 

The real Cheryl may have made these choices in her life, but we don't necessarily have to hark back to those (in graphic detail for the most part) because we have seen it all before. Instead, focusing on this incredible adventure that most of us can never dream of embarking on is much more cathartic. Hollywood's story choices often lead me cold. I have previously written about how they tend to focus on the wrong tales to tell. 

We follow Cheryl on her journey, and her hardships, fears and improvisations. You have to be resourceful out in the wild, and Cheryl is. Along the way she makes a lot of acquaintances. How she approaches them is also something to admire, as she has to think on her feet  when she meets these strangers.

What struck me about the film wasn't the overriding tropes it lays out for us. What got me was how it occasionally subverted the usual characterisations. Cheryl is the one that cheats on her husband several times over, but he's the one always there for her, helping her out. The two of them have an amicable divorce and one of her last conversations before she starts her journey is with him. Three of the Oscar nominated Best Actress characters have supportive husbands. I don't know why this surprised me but it did. I don't watch a lot of dramas - are the husbands usually portrayed as such?

I've mentioned before that people hailed 2014 as the year that celebrated complicated women, and looking at the majority of the Best Actress nominees one can hardly disagree. They are complex and unique characters. Their stories consist of their arcs, and their arcs are independent of all those around them. They make their own decisions, and they've cultivated an environment that leads others to support them. This is a rare year where the ladies in this category truly hold their own in films squarely riding on their shoulders. 

Which brings me to the interesting observation that four of the nominees are the sole (or thereabouts) nominees for their films. The only one with other nominations is Felicity Jones 'The Theory of Everything' - which is the story of a brilliant man suffering a debilitating illness.

Perhaps a review about a trek in the wild isn't quite the place to discuss the gender politics of Hollywood, but it's a good place to start. Hollywood consistently reminds us that the stories of women are of less importance and have less significance than that of men. We may not have a female Stephen Hawking, but who's to say there isn't a woman out there making just as much impact in a completely different sphere, and suffering through something completely unrelated?

Who's to judge that Alice's decline in 'Still Alice' makes less of an impact than the wretched and psychologically damaged Riggan in 'Birdman'? I bring up 'Still Alice' because it was a poignant film that was brilliantly crafted without being contrived or exposition-heavy. 'Birdman', for all its excellent camerawork, still pandered to its audience, making it sleazy and at times contrived. I wouldn't put 'Wild' up there with even the good films this year, but there were others that many people have mentioned which should be in the reckoning but aren't, because the voters probably never bothered to watch them and the studios didn't push them because, shock and horror, it was about a woman!

For all of the film's issues, all the performances were great. Witherspoon has won in the past in a particularly poor year for female leads. She's in some tough competition this year. She has a slim chance, but I doubt she'll get it. I didn't think her performance was extraordinary (that remains the prerogative of Julianne Moore), but it was apt.

Laura Dern's is the only nomination in the supporting category that is worthwhile. Her role is much smaller and less significant than the others in the category, but she's the only one that acts. Her Bobbi is a vivacious character with a necessarily positive outlook. I loved the scene when she's happily singing and swaying as her daughter rattles off everything they don't have in their lives - it's a scene that really makes the character. I'm routing for her, if only because the other nominees are truly atrocious choices.

'Wild' is only a little cathartic. It's a stupendous journey, rigourous and tiring and the film throws in a lot to remind one that there's still good out there. People are horrible, but most of the people that Cheryl meets (in the film at least) are wonderful and supportive. They view her as a person, praise her for her dedication and her bravery, and are overall helpful. There's hope for the world yet.


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