blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Wild Life (2023, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin)

Wild Life has a “what if Douglas Sirk did an epic filmed over multiple years” feel to it. And Wild Life, though the film never acknowledges it, was filmed over multiple years. And not by directors Vasarhelyi and Chin. The subject of the film—Douglas Tompkins (the lead is his widow, Kris Tompkins, but it’s all about him)—made a movie about being a mountaineering adventurer. So they use a bunch of the footage in Life, but never mention Tompkins’s interest in being the Carl Denham of extreme sports.

It’s a strange omission, though, as maybe not because Wild Life’s filmmakers are so disinterested in filmmaking they use an oil painting filter on Tompkins’s death scene recreation to make it look classy. But all of Life has some weird omissions.

First, it’s a single-sided commercial for Tompkins’s work, which is really easy because they seem pretty great for rich people? They’re conservationists who protected a bunch of land; they did do it in Chile, which might complicate things. But these are likable—albeit exceptionally wealthy—folks.

So, when Douglas Tompkins got divorced, he had a bunch of money because he co-founded Espirit with his ex-wife—the film sets him up like the fashion Steve Jobs for ten minutes, then completely forgets it. It’s a Sirk melodrama, just a really upbeat one about good-looking blue-blood boomers saving South America from the South Americans through their love of skiing, hiking, and surfing. It’s privileged (and knows it enough it avoid mentioning high school dropout Douglas Tompkins was dropping out from prep schools) and colonial. But since the people are right, does it matter?

I mean, it doesn’t matter to Vasarhelyi and Chin. They obfuscate the entire movie, opening with Douglas Tompkins’s death but waiting until the end to reveal its dramatic potential. They also do these really cheesy diary-writing sequences with Kris Tompkins. For all the Wild, the film always feels controlled, like there’s a thumb always holding it in place.

It also does a bad job balancing the movie adaptation-ready relationship between the Tompkins with Kris Tompkins continuing the work after her husband’s death. They’d been partners, but buying up Chilean wilderness to donate to the country (as protected national parkland), was Douglas Tompkins’s idea. The movie’s got this frame about Kris Tompkins climbing the highest mountain in their parks, which her husband named after her, but it’s completely unimportant. Except to show how white saviors boomers still get it done. But for the film? Nothing. Good shots of everyone pensive on peaks.

Because Wild Life’s a commercial. Just say it, though.

It’s an incredibly manipulative commercial too. I’m fascinated with how they edited footage. They’ve got someone weeping but then someone else sitting in front of the person consoling that person, making the consoling person anonymous. Did Vasarhelyi and Chin film a funeral making sure to block out the people who didn’t sign waivers? Did they do an Eyes Wide Shut composite? Wild Life’s a lionizing bit of propaganda, arguably less impressive than a Wikipedia article, but the construction’s intriguing.

Great editing from Bob Eisenhardt and Adam Kurnitz. The cutting is so good—and the integration of the uncredited footage is so impressive—they get a pass on the silly filters the film uses at times–even oil-painted tragedies.

Director Chin’s also got a photography credit—he’s also a character in the picture, never mentioning he was making the movie at the time—along with Clair Popkin, and the footage is absolutely stunning. There’s nowhere near enough of it, but it is gorgeous.

When in Chile, visit the Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park. There, saved you ninety minutes.

Wait, wait, wait. I’m not forgetting these bits. Sorry.

The film’s real bad at portraying how Chileans feel about the Tompkins’s work. Everyone in the film is pro—one guy says the way they acted before was nationally embarrassing—and the ex-president, Michelle Bachelet, might be the only time the movie passes Bechdel (emphasis on the might; everyone else definitely fails). But then Life keeps subtitling Chileans speaking English because their accents are… too accent-y? It’s condescending. Then when Kris Tompkins dedicates something to all the Chilean staff, she mentions her husband (deceased) and someone else. The someone else gets all the cheers from the audience.

So, little weird.

But, depending on the cast, I’d probably watch the mini-series. Douglas and Kris Tompkins are absurdly photogenic, which Douglas seems to have leveraged his entire careers, so it’ll be a difficult casting.

Actually, no, wait. Sam Rockwell and Sarah Paulson.

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