Tracks and Wild have such similar plots, and were released so close to each other, that it makes me wonder if the United States and Australian film industries had some kind of a wager. “Who can make a better film about a young woman who attains literary success after a confrontation with the wilderness?” A closer examination, however, reveals that while they may have a similar outlook on gender and personal identity, they have a profoundly different approach to storytelling.
I first decided to check out Wild after the online tabloid Gawker (the NY Post for the millennial generation) published a hit job on Reese Witherspoon.
I have no idea why Leah Finnegan at Gawker has a grudge against Reese Witherspoon, but her review of Wild is so gratuitously vicious that it only served to pique my curiosity. Could if really be that bad? It’s not. Leah Finnegan is so in love with the “edgy” sound of her own voice, she tells you little, if anything about Reese Witherspoon’s performance or Jean-Marc Vallée’s film. Her review isn’t film criticism. It’s masturbation.
I haven’t read the memoir by Cheryl Strayed that Wild is based on, so I can’t tell you how faithful the movie is to the book. But the film works on its own terms. Wild establishes its feminist tone right from the beginning. The recently divorced Cheryl Strayed is checking into a motel. It’s 17 dollars a night for a single guest, more for two people. The clerk can’t quite believe that Strayed is travelling alone. Does she have a boyfriend coming later? She doesn’t.
What Strayed does have is an enormous backpack. A substance abuser, sex-addict, and alcoholic with a mother who’s recently died from cancer, Strayed has decided to get her act together by hiking the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. The backpack, which is almost as tall as the 5’2” Witherspoon and which Strayed has stuffed to capacity, clearly represents the burdens of civilization. She can barely get it over her shoulders. When she does, she can barely stand.
Reese Witherspoon’s struggle with her enormous backpack is probably the strongest image in Wild. Rarely do we see a film about going into the wilderness that so vividly expresses the idea that leaving civilization is a dirty, physically painful, exhausting experience. You don’t just pick up one day and leave your comfortable suburban home and become Leatherstocking from Last of the Mohicans. You break toenails because your shoes are too small. You get sunburned. You don’t have access to a bath or a shower. You miss little things like the taste of Snapple, or of being able to walk into a store and browse the makeup counter without the clerk telling you that you stink.
Strayed’s discomfort with nature is also Wild’s biggest weakness.
Cheryl Strayed is no Edward Abbey. The wilderness was a path to her becoming a successful writer more than something she genuinely loves. Strayed strikes me as a typical suburban American too fond of suburban American comforts ever to be genuinely at home on the Pacific Coast Trail. Wild works as a narrative of personal discovery. A major theme in Wild is how the female gaze perceives men, and Reese Witherspoon is very skillful at expressing the state of mind of a woman alone on a potentially dangerous quest. An early encounter with a middle-aged man Strayed perceives as a rape threat reveals him to be nothing of the sort. A later encounter with a genuine would-be rapist becomes all the more chilling because we are aware of how being alone in the wilderness strips you of your normal defense mechanisms.
The problem is that Strayed is so concerned with her personal quest that nature gets swallowed up by her character. There are no striking images of the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. The camera never stops to linger on a snow-capped mountain or a patch of wild flowers. Wild’s supporting characters aren’t particularly memorable. Would be rapists become nice guys. Nice guys become would be rapists. An ex husband shows up just to get a tattoo with his ex-wife. There are no fascinating eccentrics. Just about the only animal we notice is a rattlesnake, and we only notice him because he blocks he heroine’s path. Wild, in other words, is a film about a trek into nature that doesn’t have much to do with nature. When it ends, we get the sense that Cheryl Strayed enjoyed having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail more than she enjoyed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
If Wild works best as a narrative of personal transformation, Tracks works best as pure cinema. If Wild is a writer’s film, Tracks is a photographer’s film. Strayed, a Gen Xer writing in the 1990s, is comfortable with the idea of putting herself at the center of the film. Robyn Davidson, on the other hand, seems reluctant to tell her own story. Mia Wasikowska, an actress who bears a striking resemblance to Davidson herself, like Reese Witherspoon, is a small, blond woman alone in the wilderness, but the resemblance ends there. Davidson, an Australian not an American, a woman from a culture much closer to its own frontier, settler roots is determined to speak of herself, not as a woman, but as an individual. Davidson may be a feminist in real life, but the movie doesn’t dwell on the problems of being a woman. The the biggest rape threat in Tracks comes in the form of three charging feral bull camels Davidson takes out with three clean head shots from a bolt action sniper rifle.
Mia Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is a less fully realized character than Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed, but that, paradoxically, is part of the film’s strength. Tracks, unlike Wild, liberates us from the individual’s personality and allows us to see nature itself. Where Strayed goes out into the desert so she can write. Robyn Davidson writes so she can go out in the desert. Davidson is an intelligent, but not a particularly likeable young woman. She pitches a story to the National Geographic so successfully that the magazine sends her thousands of dollars and Rick Smolan, her own personal photographer. But she’s so rude to Smolan that it takes every once of Adam Driver’s goofy persistence to make it believable that he wouldn’t just throw his hands up and leave.
It doesn’t matter. Wasikowka’s Robyn Davidson is one more eccentric in a cast of eccentrics. She’s unpleasant, but she’s also believable. This is exactly the kind of woman who would try to lose herself in the Australian outback. There’s Kurt Posel, a surly German camel wrangler who takes Davidson on as an intern, then tries to cheat her out of her salary, three wild camels. There’s a fascinating old couple Davidson meets at the end of her journey, two ancient people who look as if they had been living in the Australian outback before there even was a British colony in Australia. There’s the aboriginal elder who accompanies her through a sacred patch of land. Davidson doesn’t need a guide. But women aren’t permitted to travel on sacred aboriginal grounds without male accompaniment. There’s Diggity, Davidson’s dog and best friend. Above all there are the camels, Dookie, Bub, Zeleika , and Goliath. Most of us have seen photographs of camels, but Tracks actually makes us look at them, see them, huge animals that, at times, seem like a holdovers from an earlier geologic era, closer to small dinosaurs than to horses or dogs.
In the end, however, what both films have in common is how they dramatize, whether consciously or not, just how alien white European settler colonials appear in North America or Australia. Mia Wasikowska’s Robyn Davidson bonds with aboriginals. She even physically attacks a tourist who insults her guide. But Davidson, for all of her ferocious identification with the aboriginals against settler colonial society, doesn’t stay in the outback. She goes back to civilization, and literary celebrity. There no native Americans at all in Wild. The genocide in North America is complete. Strayed hikes the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail. Except for one obnoxious black journalist from a newspaper called The Hobo News, she sees nobody but white European Americans. Strayed can’t go back to nature because nature because there is no nature. There’s a trail. There are trees. There are mountains, but there’s no genuine wilderness.
We don’t learn what happens to Davidson’s camels at the end of Tracks. I suppose they ended up on a camel farm back in Alice Springs. I’ll have to read the memoir. But we do know what happened to Cheryl Strayed’s backpack. What it represented, civilization’s baggage, went right back up on her shoulders as soon as she had to worry about getting a job and an apartment.