An individual on the brink of a near-meltdown, with no prospects (professional or otherwise) embarks on a lonely journey where they find their true calling amidst an increasingly dangerous and threatening world.
Set in the sun-dappled California wilderness, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild extolls a cheery disposition even in the face of a broken heart as it follows Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) hiking the Pacific Crest trail as a personal atonement for past sins. Strayed, whose memoir became a best-seller before being snatched up by Witherspoon herself, emerges at the end of the film as a writer.
Set in the darkly-lit streets of Los Angeles, Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler presents us with a misanthropic and sociopathic protagonist in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Bloom, as he makes a business out of the old yellow press adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Bloom, who we first meet as a thief and a perspicacious entrepreneur without any social skills, emerges at the end of the film as the face of a nocturnal news team already expanding.
Nightcrawler & Wild may just be uttered in tandem these days when it comes to awards yet the more I think about them, the more these two films feel as bizarre twins of one another. One bright, one dark; one natural, one urban; one female, one male; one uplifting, one dispiriting — there are many ways to think of the journeys of Strayed and Bloom as two faces of the same coin. A fascinating yin and yang pair that explore broken psyches faced with a ruthless and seemingly unrelenting world. As storytellers (she a writer, he a cameraman), both focus our attention on the ways we frame and narrativize our lives, our actions, our fears.
Tonally and thematically these two films exist on opposite sides of the spectrum yet they both feature protagonists fascinated and motivated with plundering the deepest, darkest recesses of the world around them. Strayed looks in while Bloom looks out; Witherspoon’s expressive eyes show a defeated woman attempting to grapple with the darkness within her, Gyllenhaal’s on the contrary, function as bulbous mirrors and, usually covered in night shades, work at reflecting and refracting the darkness around him.
Vallée’s film ends with a story of redemption without the mawkishness Strayed’s story could so easily collapse under: Witherspoon’s Cheryl may be worse for wear (blistered and wounded physically and emotionally) but her arrival at the Bridge of the Gods in Portland is a return to the self that her mother (whose passing spurs her ill-guided descent into addiction and apathy) knew and loved. Gilroy’s film on the contrary, after shedding some blood and forcing us to witness an entrepreneurial spirit made flesh stripped of any empathy in the form of sociopathic Lou Bloom, offers us a vision of rebirth that sits intentionally uncomfortably with viewers. The very affective structure that makes us root for Strayed and rejoice with her return to civilization at the end of her journey (all alone, she’s able to make herself self-sufficient, pursuing her newfound passion) is precisely what Gilroy deploys in Nightcrawler to unwittingly get us to understand Bloom’s resurgence. Bloom, having followed the very platitudes of self-survival in a capitalist world he’s learnt from the internet has led him to be a successful (if amoral) businessman. Natural and urban wilderness have remade these protagonists in their own image, allowing them to find themselves anew, ready to tackle a life full of possibility.