Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I recently saw Wild. It’s not often I’m driven to write about a film, but I feel very moved by this one. It’s going to stay with me for a while.

I wasn’t expecting to even see it. I’d seen the trailer and thought that it was one of those trailers where you knew everything there was to know about the film before you’d seen it. I also thought it looked a bit worthy and a bit like Oscar-bait for Reese Witherspoon, who has been funny in other films but who I’d never considered much of a serious actress, except for her turn as June Carter in Walk the Line. I think it was Legally Blonde that did the damage. I liked her in Four Christmases, though. Mistletoe.

But that day it poured all day long, and it was a long weekend here as we had the day off for Martin Luther King day on the Monday. The weekend started out with plenty of activity; a Friday drink, dinner on Saturday with a lovely group of women I work with who are also now all my neighbours, and that day I met some of them again for a sweet little brunch at a nearby French restaurant. But after we all went our separate ways, and after I’d written some emails and thought about what E was doing, and I realised it was a bit too late to call my mum, I temporarily cheered myself up by buying a radio online,  but ye ole faithful – loneliness – set in. (The radio, I’m hoping, will assist with the loneliness but won’t kill all the brain cells that a TV would). Having seen all of the films at my closest cinema – save American Sniper, which I don’t really want to see, after reading all about what a hardened killer the guy was – I looked up the next nearest small cinema, which has only one screen and was showing two films – Wild and Birdman. I loved Birdman, so I took that as a good sign that whoever chooses whatever they show there had good taste. Turned out, that was correct.

I put on my waterproofs and my big boots and braved the rain to catch the bus down to the Beekman theatre. It’s a subterranean cinema in a concrete building (supposedly a location in Annie Hall, too) that looks like a 70s architect’s idea of a lively centre for the arts which has now become just an ugly concrete box. But still, the staff were very friendly. I took my seat in the dark, and realised just in time before falling over in the aisle that there was yellow ‘caution – do not cross’ tape in the first five rows. I couldn’t work out why, until I heard a persistent dripping noise during the quieter first moments of the film. I looked up, and in the half light I made out big patches on the ceiling where tiles were missing. It was leaking at a rate of knots, but once I got more involved in the film, it ceased to matter.
Our Wild heroine, Cheryl Strayer, is a character we can all identify with. Not that I can identify with being a heroin addict, or someone who cheats repeatedly on her husband, but there were some niggly little aspects of her character that I think many of us would grudgingly admit to, although we’d like to be better. Like being a bit sulky and mean to her mum, even as an adult. Or being susceptible to temptation, whether that’s sex or alcohol, or the call of something great that we know will challenge us but compels us anyway. The moment when Cheryl finds the book about the Pacific Coast Trail is a game-changer for her. She knows she must walk it. She’s reached her lowest ebb and it’s a chance at salvation.

Reese Witherspoon is fantastically normal and yet remarkable in this. She’s playing a feminist who quotes Emily Dickinson and is a brave, formidable woman who keeps walking despite all kinds of hardships and setbacks that would make any city-slicker throw in the towel. I was acutely aware of that, watching in a New York cinema, hearing popcorn being chomped behind me as we watched Cheryl run out of drinking water and have to purify liquid from a sludgy green stagnant pond just to survive. It made me think about how cosseted we all are. Especially in NYC, where you can dial some nice obliging person in a restaurant and have food delivered to your apartment door every day, if you want. Where some other nice obliging person will take your dirty laundry and smile, and give it back to you folded up all nice and sweet-smelling. What GOOD it would do us, you, me, all of us, to pare back our lives for a bit and live on our own wits, depending on no-one, at the mercy of the elements, of the wilderness, as we were built to do and as our ancestors did. And not even so many generations ago either. My great-grandparents had to work farmland and raise livestock to survive. Chances are, yours did too.

Cheryl’s journey touched me in a number of ways, and there were several moments of the film where I found myself with tears unexpectedly rolling down my cheeks. The most poignant moments were with her mum, with many telling flashbacks that painted a picture of the most normal and yet the most loving relationship they had, with of course the usual mother-daughter conflicts, and the small sparks that flew from a daughter who says it took time for her “to become the woman her mother raised her to be”, but who ultimately strives for true, lasting self-improvement, and who grieves her lost mother with such rawness and such true anguish that it makes anyone watching who still has their mother flinch and wonder if our love would also drive us to such despair. And in a way, minus the drugs and the cheating and the anger and depression, you would hope that you would feel that same anguish, because at its source would be a true, wholehearted love. 

There’s a scene where Cheryl meets a little boy walking in the woods with his grandmother (and their pet llama, randomly enough), and he and Cheryl have an innocent interchange that becomes life changing for her. He tells her he has problems he isn’t supposed to discuss with strangers, and she admits to him that she has problems too, and in his innocent way he asks her all the right questions that she hasn’t been able to voice the answers too, not even to her therapist. She admits to him that she doesn’t know her father, and that her mother has died, and he sings her an adorable little version of Red River Valley, which is so pure and sweet and lyrically perfect that after they part ways she breaks down and cries for all of her woes, in a way she hasn’t been able to for much of the journey. 

From this valley they say you are leaving
We shall miss your bright eyes and sweet smile
For you take with you all of the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley
And the cowboy that's loved you so true

For a long time, my darlin', I've waited
For the sweet words you never would say
Now at last all my fond hopes have vanished
For they say that you're going away

Then come sit by my side if you love me
Do not hasten to bid me adieu
Just remember the Red River Valley

And the cowboy that's loved you so true

After that moment, there’s a realization that dawns anew on her, and urges her to complete the hike and re-start her life again in the way she hoped she would be able to after the purge.

The film ends with Cheryl standing on the Bridge of the Gods, her final stop, and narrating as her future self her achievements, that she could never have seen at that point in time, but which all happened because of that moment, it seems. She tells us that she was married not far from that spot, and had two children not long after, and we know that somewhere in the future we can’t yet see, Cheryl has healed herself and come out of her experience a better person. The film faded out, and there I was, left feeling I’d walked the same epic journey with Cheryl, and that I’d grieved with her, and learned with her. I thought about my own situation, alone in a city I don’t care for much, that oozes selfishness and stress and skewed life priorities, but I stepped out into the night and noticed that the rain had finally stopped. The overall sensation I was left with was one of lightness, and of learning gratefulness and courage in the face of adversity – even self-imposed adversity.

I write tonight with a renewed sense of purpose. We owe it to the universe to know our place. As humans, in the general scheme of things, we come and go – and the wilderness, which no longer defines our existence but could still mean the demise of any of us – is something we must respect and defer to. Ultimately though, the beauty of being here, on this incredible planet, and of being able to feel love and form relationships and discover kindness in others, as well as learning the art of self-reliance, is what it’s all about. Cheryl learned the hard way that sometimes being alone, truly alone, is the only way to learn the value of togetherness. That’s something that has been brought into sharp focus these past months, and I intend to cling tightly to all the love in my life.

Here’s to the wilderness.