There are road movies about young people and there are road movies about old people. The latter are generally memory films with plenty of flashbacks, while the former tend to remain in the here and now. While the world view and actions of the protagonist may be determined in part by past events, these reference points are typically given an ambiguous treatment. In Wim Wenders’ “Kings of the Road,” Lander visits his father for the first time since the death of his mother. His action is directly related to what he perceived as his father’s mistreatment of his mother, but there are no flashbacks to inform the viewer of the specifics of that abuse. The important thing is that he is seeing his father for the first time in eight years, and is giving expression to the event that caused the filial estrangement. In Ingmar Berman’s “Wild Strawberries,” 78 year-old Dr. Isak Borg travels to receive an honorary award, and nearly every person and thing he encounters along the road prompts a nostalgic flashback.
Candian writer-director Jean-Marc Vallee, who scored a hit last year with Dallas Buyers’ Club, has made an old person’s road movie with young Reese Witherspoon as its flashbacking protagonist. It doesn’t work. Neither the memory episodes nor the framing hike up the Pacific Coast Trail offer any insight into this dull, detached figure in the wood.Vallee tells us all we are going to know about Cheryl Strayed by her surname alone. She has surely strayed into this narrative soley on the whim of its author. The backstory ingredients are not only trite, but ill-conceived. Two events that are tragic in real life but banal as narrative stressors, are compounded by a ridiculous descent into random sexual escapades with fellow junkies. Now anybody with even a cursory familiarity with heroin addicts knows that sex is the last thing on a junkie’s to-do list. Yet these passionate needle freaks throw their business at each other it with body heat furor wherever they can find a filthy wall to butt up against.
What makes “Wild” really bad, though, is that the flashbacks tell us nothing about Cheryl’s marriage and divorce, her mother’s life and death, or her addiction to junk. Their value is the relief they give the viewer from the deadly boredom of watching Witherspoon walk through the woods, as well as giving Vallee excuses to avoid integrating Cheryl’s encounters with fellow hikers and other strangers. Whenever a scene pushes the limits of tedium, he cuts to a mother-daughter quarrel or a zipless fuck against a ghetto wall.
Yves Belanger’s cinematography does no justice to the natural splendors of the Pacific Coast Trail, so the movie lacks even the basic pleasures of a travelogue. The only stretch of road worth travelling here is the brief sojourn in Ashland, Oregon, where streets of neo-hippies sway to a really decent cover of a Grateful Dead song.