Hopeful Wanderers: The spiritual journeys in ‘Wild’ and ‘Exodus’

SHE THIRSTS. Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”

While Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness, Reese Witherspoon spends about three months there in Wild as the self-flagellating author Cheryl Strayed, albeit with a nylon tent, gas stove, water-purification tablets, James Michener paperbacks and a paralyzing aversion to serpents. Mortification of the flesh is one thing. Cold/hunger/boredom is quite another.

Which is not to suggest, heaven forfend, that “Wild,” Jean-Marc Vallée’s ingeniously directed adaptation of Strayed’s bestselling memoir, is less than an engrossing, moving and/or well-structured movie, made in a manner that evokes every ounce of sympathy for its heroine in her passion and her thirst for absolution. Of course, the all-knowing Jesus may have more readily handled the gas stove that utterly baffles Strayed, along with every other piece of equipment she hauls in her Witherspoon-sized backpack. Who, exactly, embarks on an 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail without having put up the tent at least once? It does dilute some of the affection we generally feel toward Ms. Witherspoon, who does not give a fully realized performance as much as she puts an adorable face on a story of self-abasement and, ultimately, self-forgiveness.

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But is it wrong to hold Strayed’s lack of respect for the elements against her? Yes, in the sense that in a  Christ-inspired salvation tale, which “Wild” quite definitely is, the sufferer should  not welcome the suffering, perhaps, but at least accept it—not throw her ill-fitting boots down a mountain  or silently curse the gas stove. Strayed, who in her former life was addicted to drugs, sex and general misbehavior, embarks on her trek the way spiritual seekers often do, at least in fiction, seeking a baptism by fire (so to speak) that will serve as a catalyst toward spiritual enlightenment, something for which all the personal crises serve as prelude. She does not take a cell phone, which would have been tough anyway 20 years ago, when she made the trip. On the other hand, she does not exactly throw herself, à la St. Benedict, naked into the thornbush.

But if the metaphorical counterpart to Strayed is Jesus and his suffering, the precursor to Jesus was Moses, who prefigured Christ’s time on earth and served his own 40-day stint in the desert—to be echoed in that 40-year journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, all of which are portrayed with the help of wrath-of-God special effects by director Ridley Scott in Exodus: Gods and Kings. An epic of nostalgic excess, this film stars Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Hiam Abbass, John Turturro, Goldshifteh Farahani, Sigourney Weaver and Ghassan Massoud—the kind of international cast one puts together these days in hopes of international gold. In terms of pure screen time, it will provide global audiences their money’s worth.

Dramatically speaking, one needs to separate the message of God from the message of mammon in “Exodus,” even if, like “Wild,” its underlying theme is redemption through suffering. To say that Scott’s epic is the aesthetic antithesis of “Wild” would be stating the fairly obvious. Vallée, through the lens of his fellow Quebecer, the cinematographer Yves Bélanger, presents a world joyous in its nature and largely unspoiled in its glory, unadorned and, to a large degree, unforgiving.

“Exodus” is executed in fabulous, state-of-the-art 3D computer graphics and tells, with reasonable fidelity and sometimes unreasonable overkill, the story of Moses (Bale), his life as a royal ward in Memphis, the revelation of his Jewishness, his break with the Pharaoh (Edgerton), the various plagues—recreated with sometimes disgusting exactitude—and the Exodus itself, replete with a Red Sea sporting tidal waves. It is Hollywood at its most gratuitously, technologically lavish, although in the cause of telling a divinely inspired story.

Despite their stylistic differences, the two films share a kinship of faith. Moses believes undaunted in the God who speaks to him through (spoiler alert) a burning bush, the wonders of the natural world and, yes, a little boy named Malak (Isaac Andrews), whose steely look and intemperate use of toads and boils make him an intriguing and perhaps even convincing stand-in for the Almighty—one who wreaks havoc on Egypt and finally frees the Jews from the yoke of the idol builders.

For her part, Strayed has a largely unarticulated belief that the unspoiled world of the Pacific Crest Trail will restore balance to her soul. That she exhibits a streak of stupidity regarding some elementary truths about the elements makes her less winning than she might have been, but her blind belief in her mission is ultimately inspiring.

Likewise—as has been the case for several millennia—the story of Moses and his leading of the Jews on a 40-year walk around sun-baked Sinai, all the while wondering why God has forsaken them. “Exodus” is entertainment, make no mistake: There are romances, action and scenery chewing, although Bale is his reliably brilliant self, making Moses a believable man as well as a believable prophet. It will intrigue movie fans to see how he approaches a role most identified with an actor and movie unfamiliar with understatement, namely Charlton Heston in “The Ten Commandments” (which these days would likely be titled “The 3D Ten Commandments!”). But Scott—as is the wont of directors who have lived, worked and learned through several decades of movies which, to be taken seriously, have had to take their subjects seriously and not burden them with bombast—strives, between the parting waters and buzzing locusts, to make Moses as plausible as he might have been to the Hebrew ancients. In his turmoil and pain he may not be a reasonable man. But he is a rational dreamer.

The same is true, in her own way, of Cheryl Strayed in “Wild.” Vallée does the strategic thing, eschewing a chronological retelling of Strayed’s story and introducing her at the start of her grueling trek—so that, narratively speaking, her penance precedes her sins, and our sympathy precedes the revelations of her bad character. We see her transgressions only in flashbacks of naked flesh and intravenous injections, multiple partners and a saintly ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), who later will forward batteries and food to Cheryl at the various ranger stations on her route, which arrive like manna from Heaven (something left out of “Exodus,” by the way, which otherwise leaves out very little).

Aptly, the scale of the stories befits their themes: “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is about freeing a nation from its oppressor. “Wild” is about a woman who has to travel 1,100 miles to realize the mother she mourns (Laura Dern, in yet another fine performance) had it right all the time: Despite having no money, no advantages and an abusive spouse, her mother reveled joyously in her children and in life itself. While Moses never got to enter the Promised Land, Cheryl Strayed lived next to it all along.

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