Wild (2014) has a sort of unfortunate title, as it seems to be an abbreviation of Into The Wild (2007). Both movies relate a story of a lost individual (Cheryl Strayed in Wild, Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild) who seeks truth and happiness on the road as she/he travels into the wild for an extended period of time. Both movies build their narrative around flashbacks and both movies use the physical journey of their protagonist as a metaphor for their mental/spiritual journey.
So yeah, Wild can be (mistakenly) seen as a female version of Into the Wild. But without denying their obvious similarities, they are not each others’ gender-translated copies. Into the Wild really was a true road movie, with the main narrative taking place during the trip of Christopher McCandless, all the way towards his isolated final destination.
Wild, in contrast, is much more focused on the story before the hike. Actually, the hike of Cheryl Strayed feels like a epilogue after the main drama, which hinges on the loss of her mother to cancer and her subsequent depression and drug addiction.
In that sense it’s less of a true road movie, and is equally a drama about a young woman who lost her way. Her challenges on the road never seem unsurmountable, and besides a few creepy scenes with weird and threatening locals, Cheryl never seems to be in real danger. She just needs to find her self again.
Less drama on the road might mean a less compelling movie, but because Cheryl’s past life is so strongly communicated, and her journey connects so well to her past life, the film works extremely well as a story, both structurally and emotionally.
So how does its cinematography relates to its succes?
As you might expect from a movie about hiking through nature, Wild has a natural look to it. There are no crazy lightning setups, no real standout camera tricks or weird angles. For about 90% of the movie it was shot with available light, and often from a handheld position (Cinematographer Yves Bélanger stated in an interview that he carried about the same amount of weight on his shoulders during the shoot as actress Reese Witherspoon, who carried a 20kg. backpack throughout the film).
Probably the most significant effect of Bélanger’s choice for natural lightning is seen in the face of Reese Witherspoon. And we see her face a lot in close ups in Wild. In a film where she often has to act without other actors around her, her facial expressions become a significant communicator to the audience, much more so than her voice, so we constantly are attracted to her expression, to how see looks at the world around her.
Because she is not artificially lit, the light that falls on her face is purely the light of her environment. The scenery around her bounces the light unto her, and with it pushes its colors unto her face. Be it a green cast when she’s in a forest, or the warm glow of desert sand. Her face constantly changes its hue, blending in with her environment.
Combined with a lack of visible make-up and beauty spotlights, Reese’s face becomes a naturalistic landscape of its own. We see her emotions, grimaces and groans clear and without cover-up. For a movie that focuses on an inner journey of its main character it’s a great approach to engage the viewer and connect them to Cheryl.
Now a second technique that is less apparent in the movie, yet ever present in most all of its shots, is the handheld camera movement. As Cheryl hikes through most of the movie, so does the cameraman. And because the backpack carried by Reese Witherspoon is so much larger than herself, Bélanger couldn’t walk behind her to capture her. You would only see a backpack moving on two legs. Besides; her face is best seen from the front. So the Bélanger had to walk backwards in front of Witherspoon. Which means you have to learn to walk backwards over rough terrain, while keeping the shot steady. As it turned out, the technique to this is in precisely following the footsteps of your subject, so that the bouncing of your own steps synchronizes with your subject, that way you stabilize the shot in a way.
It’s not a particularly intricate camera technique, but I thought it to be an interesting snippet of information, realizing how skilled you still need to operate your camera even (or maybe especially) in the most naturalistic of environments.
The One Shot
As we come up to my One Shot however, we come to the point in the film where suddenly this handheld technique is discarded in exchange for a fluid steadicam movement. In the final scene of the movie, after Cheryl has come to her valuable realizations about forgiveness and acceptance and finishes her hike, the film visually communicates just what kind of a weight has been lifted of her shoulders. Suddenly Cheryl seems to float over the ground. The camera slides and glides and slightly tilts. After watching Cheryl suffer through every mile, every meter of her journey, with a realistic and grounded camera movement capturing her, suddenly it feels like we have a weightless experience.
I subconsciously registered this effect when I first watched the movie and felt the relief of her enlightenment both physically and mentally, but I didn’t actually notice the change in camera movement. Only after seeing Bélanger discuss the movie and talking about the ending did I realize that indeed the camera starts to float in those final shots.
The most effective of those shots is the one I choose as my One Shot. It contains the drifting and peaceful movement of the camera, but in this shot that movement is enhanced by A.the passing bird who drifts through the frame in slow motion, and C.the composition of the frame, as the bridge creates a sort of tunnel vision, pulling you into the frame, almost out of your own body. The way the bridge is framed slightly out of balance further enhances the sense of floating. It is this combination of all those elements that come together to make this shot so subtly effective. Finally; to me the shot also suggests the message of the film. Even though the shot expresses the weightlessness of relief, Bélanger does place the backpack in the frame. Which to me in a way suggests; you don’t need to drop the weight of your past life to experience freedom. When Cheryl begins to accept her choices in life, she feels free and light as a feather, even with a 20kg. backpack on her shoulders..