The Not-So-Wild “Wild,” and Two Films That Put It to Shame

December 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

My massive interior paint job, now mercifully completed, has kept me from blogging, but I’m back. In the midst of the upheaval, I managed to get out to some screenings–three in as many nights. One of them was “Wild,” the much-anticipated adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I was aware of Strayed’s colorful back story, but expected, not unreasonably, that the story of a woman’s solitary three-month hike through the wilderness would depict a) solitude and b) wilderness. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

I realized almost immediately that screenwriter Nick Hornby (yes, that Nick Hornby) and director Jean-Marc Vallee had zero interest in depicting either solitude or landscapes, preferring copious chatter (via voiceover during the hike and during the many, many flashbacks) and closeups. Not only are almost no long shots in “Wild,” but none are held long enough to be classified as establishing shots. Instead, we get endless close-ups of Reese’s worried/exasperated/exhausted face, and medium shots of her trudging along the trail. I kept wanting the DP, Yves Belanger, to pull back and show reality–a lone woman hiking through an enormous landscape–but he never did, creating what is surely the most claustrophobic and unnatural film ever made about trekking. Cluttered, chatty and overwrought, “Wild” isn’t worthy of its name. It’s also long and boring, like the hike–but without the vistas.

The baffling lack of establishing shots is partially explained in this NYT travel section article about “Wild,” which appeared 12/5/14. The reporter, Tim Neville, explains:

In fact, while “Wild” the book has story lines in Minnesota, California and Oregon, all but seven of the movie’s scenes were filmed in Oregon, and only two of them were actually on the Pacific Crest Trail. “This wasn’t ‘Into the Wild,’ where we were ready to backpack into places to get some shots,” said Nancy Haecker, the location manager for “Wild,” who also worked with Sean Penn on the film version of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” “Most of the time you just can’t send a movie crew out into some of these places. You need locations that are accessible, cinematic and can serve several purposes so the crew doesn’t have to pack up each day.”

Hmm. Vallee and Belanger would have done well to watch “Jeremiah Johnson,” the 70’s Robert Redford film whose locations hardly look accessible and are properly shot. As for the character’s solitude, I can recall only one or two lines of dialogue in the entire movie: it’s practically a silent film. Yet strangely “Jeremiah Johnson” is a lot more interesting to watch than “Wild.”

Another film that should have been a model for “Wild” is the Cohen Brother’s “No Country for Old Men.” DP Roger Deakins begins with a series of long shots, each held for 5-6 seconds, that tell us everything we need to know about the setting (Marfa, Texas). These establishing shots, each beautifully composed, take up an astonishing 1 minute, 22 seconds, but there isn’t a wasted nanosecond.

As it happens, there’s a new film that takes place in a mountain setting that is everything “Wild” is not: gorgeously photographed in often difficult settings, beautifully written and acted, and endlessly compelling. I’ll be writing about it in my next post.

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