Saturday, December 27, 2014

Wild? Yes, Sure She Is, but What Else?

Of course, I was riveted by “Wild,” the Reese Witherspoon film about a woman walking the thousand-mile Pacific Crest Trail alone.

I walked the Camino de Santiago with my daughter. I am making a pilgrimage to Montreal alone on foot. Any story of a person taking a long trek under a heavy pack is likely to compel my interest.

But only up to a point. Halfway through this film, I started asking myself two questions:

First, why is Witherspoon the least appealing female character in the movie? She serves not only as star but also as executive producer. She might have given her portrayal a bit more je ne sais quoi. 

Second, why is she walking, where is she going, and what does she hope to find when she gets there? The second question links with a broader question I have been grappling with: What is a pilgrimage and when is a “pilgrimage” only a trek or a hike or an exercise in cultural tourism?

As to the first question, Witherspoon’s Cheryl is overshadowed by her mother, Bobbi, played by the lovely Laura Dern. Where Cheryl is all icy, rocky surfaces, like the trail she walks, Dern is an open book, with love and despair and compassion competing for space on her face.

Witherspoon is also outshined by two women in smaller roles: big-eyed Gaby Hoffmann as Cheryl’s pre-trek friend and soul mate; and Cathryn de Prume as Stacey, another solo female hiker Cheryl meets briefly en route.

A sympathetic answer to the first question might be, Witherspoon’s performance is unappealing because Cheryl Strayed, the author on whose memoir the film is based, is one tough lady—as we see from real-life stills shown over the end credits. Only at the end of the film, after a chance encounter with a little boy who sings her a song in the woods, does Witherspoon’s Cheryl show us the emotional bottom of her character.

But then maybe this is the message of the movie—that we have to reach down into the deep pit of our own pain before we emerge with our “best self,” a term used in the film.

While Ed Sellner might disagree, “Wild” is not about pilgrimage. It is about a woman at the end of her rope, who conceives the mad idea of hiking from Mexico to Canada alone—and it changes her. 

But why does it change her? What are the physics of the grace Cheryl comes upon? Is it grace, or only endorphins? I don’t think the film ever tells us. It simply asks us to watch a woman hit bottom—drug-, sex-, and every other-wise—and then somehow “realize who she really is” by walking one thousand miles.

This is not a pilgrimage because Cheryl is not going anywhere, except to a destination at the Candian border handsomely named Bridge of the Gods. There are no gods in this “Wild.” Instead, we are given a tale of a woman “empowered” by testing her limits and, in the end, awarded with a cheap gold ring.

In a voice-over, Witherspoon tells us the good stuff that will happen to Cheryl over the next ten years, and we all say, Yes, I knew it was going to be a happy ending. I knew she’d make it.

But why? What for? Why walk? Walk where? Whom for?

I’m still waiting.

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