It’s not a secret that Hollywood creates very few movies with female protagonists outside of the romance genre. This is based off of the archaic yet pervasive idea that self-reliant woman leads do not sell tickets. Reese Witherspoon and her business partner Bruna Papandrea aim to disrupt this widespread sexist notion through the creation of their production company Pacific Standard. With so much to prove to the industry, it was important for them to come out fighting with an unassailable debut film- that film was Wild.
When Cheryl Strayed was 22 years old, her mother died within two months of being diagnosed with cancer. Wild follows the progression of Strayed’s grief as she spirals down a dark hole that anyone who loses the love of their life is susceptible to. Although the screenplay was written by a man, the film was directed by a man, and the cinematography was shot by a man, each individual was handpicked and worked under the direction of Witherspoon and Papandrea. Nick Hornby, the screenwriter for the movie, read the book within a 24 hour period and was so moved by it that he actually went in search of the company that was adapting the memoir. Witherspoon and Papandrea hired him because they recognized how much passion he had for the memoir and just how much he understood what they were attempting to create. He was given the difficult job of adapting the screenplay within three months, but he was able to do so while still retaining the voice of Cheryl Strayed, the memoir’s author. Jean-Marc Vallee was brought on as the director and Yves Bélanger was brought on as the cinematographer because of their success with Dallas Buyers Club. It was extremely smart of Witherspoon and Papandrea to surround this film with professionals who knew how to take a small budget film and make it look as if it was being funded by a large production company. Any movie below $8-10 million is considered small scale and Dallas Buyers Club had a budget of $5 million. Even so, it still garnered commercial recognition and success. These two men also fell in love with the story of Wild and were passionate team players throughout the filming process.
The way that the story is told is very interesting because it is not shown in a linear sequence. Strayed spends the film hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to regain her sense of self, but the flashback tool is used to show the audience the turmoil that she is dealing with. Each emotional and physical struggle that Strayed encounters on the trail is coupled with a painful memory. This allows the audience to understand her past and what she is trying to overcome, but just like how Strayed is revisiting those dark places in her mind one at a time, so is the audience. This makes the audience feel like they are being brought on, not just Strayed’s physical journey, but her emotional journey as well. This technique is extremely important when attempting to form a connection between Strayed and the audience. When you are reading a book, you have the luxury of reading someone’s thoughts, but you cannot do that with a movie. Therefore, this was a brilliant way for Hornby to adapt that bond.
The cinematography played a huge role in attaching the audience to the film while reflecting on Strayed’s personal journey. Bélanger made the choice to use natural lighting the majority of the time they filmed outside to give it that gritty edge and realistic look. It just made everything look dirtier, which is what one wants when filming a trail story about someone who is on an emotional journey. To add to that theme, a lot of the shots seemed like they were done with handheld cameras. This gives the film a documentary feel, which is fitting because it is a true story. His use of color also plays into the emotions that were being portrayed throughout the movie. Everything is very neutral during the desert scenes. There are a lot of yellows and browns, while the mountain scenes contain a lot of greens and blues and blacks. The desert colors match Strayed’s shirt, boots, and hair, while the mountain colors match her backpack, pants, and jacket. These are not coincidences but rather calculated artistic choices. They allow Reese’s character to fade into her environment, which mirrors her character becoming one with the wilderness. The change in colors as the movie progresses also provides a stark contrast between the different mindsets she is in at different points in her journey. As she gains more and more clarity and piece of mind, the colors become more vibrant, but at the same time, as she gets deeper and deeper into her darkest thoughts and memories, the colors deepen. This symmetry between the shots and the character’s mindset is what subliminally enhances this emotionally-naked journey of the character.
Reese Witherspoon said in an interview for The New York Times, “if we can pull this off, this’ll be the first movie, I believe…that stars a woman that at the very end has no money, no man, no parents, no job, no opportunities, and it’s a happy ending. How important, how needing of that, are we? How late to the party are we?” That is what Wild gives its viewers. Strayed did not hike the Pacific Crest Trail to get a successful job or to find that right guy who will mend her broken heart. The only person on that trail who she was trying to prove something to was herself. She needed to remind herself just how strong she was on her own, carrying the weight of the world on her back. The wilderness is an unforgiving place. It does not care what you have been through or where you are going. Therefore, Strayed had to rely on herself and herself alone to get her through that journey, and she did it. With multiple Oscar nominations and great box office success, Wild proves women can hold their own in this industry as well as in their own lives.