The protagonist of Jean Marc-Vallée’s brilliant The Dallas Buyer’s Club, Woodruff is a heavy drinker, a chain-smoker, a cocaine abuser, an Alpha male homophobe who uses and discards women like toilet paper.
Cheryl Strayed is Woodruff’s female counterpart.
The protagonist of Vallée’s most recent film Wild, she uses her mother’s death as an excuse to engage in three or four years of self-indulgence, self-pity and self-destruction, betraying her supportive husband, engaging in one meaningless affair after another, ending up with a heroin addict and becoming a user herself.
Ron Woodruff, diagnosed with AIDS, redeems himself.
We watch, reluctantly at first, as he overcomes his homophobia, befriending a tortured transsexual who becomes his partner in his heroic attempt to override FDA regulations and bring the life-saving drug AZT to AIDS sufferers in America.
Cheryl Strayed, bottoming out, redeems herself as well.
She hits the Pacific Crest Trail, and by the end of her journey, she has overcome her grief and learned to care about other people.
Or so Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornsby tell us.
Woodruff earns his redemption in The Dallas Buyers Club. Vallee shows us the process, step by painful step, through Woodruff’s actions and interactions with other people.
Strayed simply asserts her redemption in the voice-over narrative that concludes the film.
What, you ask, about that extraordinary moment near the end when she encounters the old woman and the little boy named Kyle?
To those of you who haven’t yet seen the film, let me suggest you skip the next few sentences.
The moment in question is Cheryl’s meeting with Vera and five year-old Kyle.
The boy has been living with his mother on the streets of Portland, and Vera—a mere acquaintance—has, at his mother’s request, taken Kyle on a hike while she tries to get her life back on track.
Kyle is very upset with Vera for revealing his problems to a stranger, but he relaxes when Cheryl generously reveals that she too has had problems, and in response, he sings a song for her, a song his mother taught him. It’s “Red River Valley” rendered in a voice so pure and sweet it tears your heart apart.
It tears Cheryl’s apart as well and is the moment that makes the rest of the film worth sitting through, the moment when she actually sheds her self-pity, succeeds in seeing beyond her own problems, and shows sympathy for someone besides herself.
The problem is that nothing we’ve seen happen to Cheryl on the trail seems to have much connection to this moment.
It seems to come out of nowhere.
Oh, she’s been the beneficiary of the kindness of many others, but she’s been impervious to their example until now…just as she has been impervious to the shining example of her loving mother who knew that life is hard but also beautiful, who in spite of everything she’d gone through, greeted each day with gratitude and wonder.
It’s easy to see why Vallée wanted to make this movie. He’s clearly drawn to unlikeable characters who rise above themselves, and he does succeed in making Cheryl more accessible than the author herself did in her book.
Part of this is due to the remarkable work of Reese Witherspoon, who may well walk away with an Academy Award this spring.
Part of it is due to the bravura performance of Laura Dern—there are simply no words to describe what she does with the role of Cheryl’s mother.
And then there’s the amazing Evan O’Toole, who plays Kyle.
I ended up a reluctant admirer of much that this film has to offer even though its obsessive flashback structure rendered it uninvolving for me until the very end, even though I never managed to get past my distaste for Cheryl’s serial irresponsibility, even though I’m convinced she never earns her redemption.
See it for its performances.
See it for its direction and extraordinary editing.
And keep your eyes open for Vallée’s next project.