Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) gives us another collaged and stream of consciousness trip in "Wild." Both the book and the film are based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, detailing her life on the Pacific Crest Trail as she journeyed up it in the effort to re-assemble and re-assert her being.
Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed as a pale, hatchet-like hiker who is both worried and fearless. Every gesture, every motion she makes brings pain, and in this incarnation Witherspoon is an indigenous, ambulatory Christ figure, her blood mixed with the thorny berries that she picks from a tree.
Still, she carries on.
Through it all, her mother (Laura Dern) sustains her, a spirit of memory.
True to form, director Vallee delivers wondrous poetic verve, at times almost reaching the anxiety of a phantasmagoria. Strayed is both driven and pursued by the element of blood. The blood of a unfortunately killed horse, the blood jabbed from a needle during her drug addiction, and the blood of her mother, dream-drenched by guilt. A hiker she is, but she is also a dream walker, half vodoo princess, half day-of-the-dead observer and participant.
The film is subversive in the fact that even under a heroin haze, Strayed remains in control and powerful with her quest clearly in place. The men in the film, from Cheryl's ex Paul (Thomas Sadowski ), to fellow hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and farmer Frank (W. Earl Brown) are either passive, neutral or generic. And if the men are not in retrograde they are quickly stripped of desire under Cheryl's gaze as in the case of the hopeful ranger (Brian Van Holt) or the predatory and wolfish T.J. (Charles Baker). This is a film where women are made for power and men are either meek, mundane or seen as abusive.
The omnipotence of feminine power comes to the fore.
Vallee gives a tribute provocatively as well: in one scene, a fox appears, fixing Strayed with a piercing but questioning look. Given the heavy snow and the dark pointed woods, this moment is right out of Lars von Trier's "Antichrist."
The film can also be seen as a more benign and naturalist version of "Gone Girl." Like Amy, Cheryl is constantly patronized, though all the while, she alone has a plan in her head. Mystery is paramount and just as in Gillian Flynn's story, the men here remain stumped and mystified by Cheryl's resilience in a desert terrain.
"Wild" creates a rich satisfying prism of a woman walking between the shades. It is Reese Witherspoon's strongest film, and under Vallee's direction her fun-loving debutante persona all but disappears.
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