If there’s one thing we learnt from Into the Wild, it was the treacherous disregard of nature for those who travel into its interiors. Nature, although an inviting alternative to contemporary life, presents unforeseeable obstacles that not even the best-equipped are prepared for. Two films released in 2014, Wild and Tracks, chronicle true stories of two women who travel into the dark throes of the wilderness, experiencing the sublime in both its beauty and its dangers.
Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, is based on the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, recounting her journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. Played by the punchy Reese Witherspoon, Strayed is dwarfed by an unnecessarily large backpack and a toppling pile of regretful decisions that have left her searching for safe ground. She resolves to hike the Trail to separate herself from a past dominated by drug abuse, an early divorce and the death of her mother.
Tracks, an Australian film, conveys a similar need to escape into a landscape untouched by human presence. Directed by John Curran, Tracks tells the story of Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska), whose solo nine-month journey takes her across the deserts of Western Australia to the Indian Ocean – or ‘Big Lake’ as it is called by some Australian Aboriginals. Accompanied by four camels and her dog Diggity, Davidson searches for seclusion in a desert land that produces no life or sustenance, an empty landscape of dust and sky.
For both of these women, alone in the middle of the natural world, life becomes a stark dichotomy between the imminent dangers of the immediate present – thirst, hunger, and natural disaster – and flashbacks to past emotional turmoil. This dichotomy of contrasting temporalities leads to self-reconciliation in a surprising and ultimately intuitive manner. Forced to face rattlesnakes and cobras, miles of snow and dust storms, Strayed and Davidson return to the primal needs of human survival, discarding the superfluous preoccupations of modern life.
Both films rely heavily on their female leads to portray this renewed sense of clarity elicited by the landscape, though in different ways. True to form, Wasikowska presents Davidson as imperturbable and aloof. In contrast, Witherspoon’s interpretation of Strayed is dark and pithy. Despite their differing approaches to portraying female strength, both actresses are successful, their varying interpretations adding nuance to an oft-presented character type.
However, Strayed’s strength isn’t apparent at first. She appears defeated from the outset, comically unable to even pick up her mountainous backpack. Her innocence and ineptitude are often frustrating, as other travellers, mostly men, accommodate her, victimize her and condescend to her ability to care for herself. While several scenes undermine her status as a strong female lead, seemingly undermining the powerful premise of the film, Strayed ultimately overcomes her initial ineptitude and completes her hike.
Wild further attempts to compensate for the monotony of the hiking experience through ceaseless flashbacks to Strayed’s ‘wild’ and reckless actions pre-hike, sacrificing the chance to show Strayed in communion with the landscape. Just as we often forget about Frodo and Sam in Lord of the Rings, the constant presence of Strayed’s past gradually sidelines her present journey. Instead, when we do see Strayed on the Trail, it is when she is learning from people who teach her basic (sometimes commercial) survival skills, including how to order a different size of hiking boots from REI (oh, Hollywood product placement). Where it lacks a genuine understanding of the ‘wild’, Strayed’s hike instead presents the revelatory journey of the everyman in the context of the 21st century.
Davidson also acknowledges that she is under-qualified, musing instead that any ordinary person is capable of making the trek across the desert. In her original account of her travels, Davidson merely concludes, “I love the desert and its incomparable sense of space”. Her motivations, as shown in Tracks, are equally vague. Wasikowska, however, presents a genuine and convincing interpretation of Davidson’s need for solitude, evidently informed by her experience playing strange, isolated individuals in films such as Stoker and Alice in Wonderland.
It does become clear, however, that Davidson is struggling with the purpose of her trip and meaning in her life, which she initially believes that she will find in the temperamental Australian landscape. In the most striking scene of the film, she walks naked in the middle of an empty plain with only sand for miles around. When everything is finally stripped away, Davidson realizes the true meaning of being utterly alone, and that only through human connection will she be able to find the answers for which she searches.
Davidson and Strayed’s experiences of nature are heavily influenced by differing cultural perceptions of American and Australian landscapes. In American myth, the Natural World was lauded as a space of regeneration –bountiful, sublime and especially destined for greatness. Nature is a symbolic repository for improvement; a space where Strayed also accesses a model for her self-renewal. We are continuously shown verdant scenes, rich with life, while signposts, like steps on a ladder, steadily lead Strayed to the final bridge that marks the end of her hike.
In contrast, in Australian settler culture, nature is to be endured or battled against; an opponent of civilization rather than a landscape of endless opportunity. In this way, Davidson is forced to accept the natural hierarchies that exist in nature; learning how to shoot wild animals without hesitation, and confidently command her camels to ensure their survival. It is the distinctiveness of the Australian landscape that mitigates the suffering that it imposes; national character seemingly forged through the bravery necessitated by ceaseless drought, flood and bushfire. Davidson, as portrayed by Wasikowska, is successful in navigating the dual nature of the landscape by accepting both its brutality and the possibility for tenderness, which, when brought together, constitute the distinctly Australian notion of ‘tough love.’
Unlike Into the Wild’s Christopher McCandless, who completely spurns contemporary civilization, Strayed and Davidson set out to reassert their connection with themselves within an overwhelming modern world. These films show a return to nature, motivated by a common need to find something ‘purer’ than we are, dislocated from the faults and flaws of human experience. The purity of natural experience thus forces us to discard the overwrought, obfuscating anxieties of our modern lifestyles and return to the primal needs of human survival. Regardless of its cultural significance, nature allows us to access a truer version of ourselves – even if that self was within us already.
Photos courtesy of Wild and Tracks