Film Review: Noble Intentions of “Wild Life” Lost in Muddle of Hagiography
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 12th, 2023
Wild Life (Jimmy Chin/Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2023) 1 out of 4 stars.
The Earth approaches irreversible catastrophe, climate change is real, and the time to act is now; nay, yesterday. Any and all efforts to fix our current existential crisis should be lauded. It would be hard to argue against the preservation of pristine wilderness in the face of what may be our last chance to save the planet.
There is no doubt that the late entrepreneur, environmentalist, and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins lived a life worthy of cinematic exploration. After a first and second chapter founding and running The North Face and then Esprit, he left the business world, settled in Chile, and began buying up land within the Patagonia region (which also encompasses part of Argentina), all with an eye to turning said land into a series of national parks, eventually to be gifted back to Chile. There is most definitely a movie within that story.
Unfortunately, Wild Life, the new film from directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo), is not up to the kind of in-depth analysis required for the many contradictions of Tompkins’ narrative. Instead, what it aspires to be is mostly pure hagiography, with the filmmakers demonstrating at every turn that they are far too close to their subject, whom they knew personally. Though filled with beautiful shots of the Patagonian landscapes, the documentary offers one missed opportunity after another to engage the tale with the complexity required.
Tompkins’ second wife and widow, Kris, is very much front and center here. Her presence may or may not contribute to Chin and Vasarhelyi’s reluctance to push back on the theme of Tompkins’ essential nobility, given her continuing grief over his 2015 death in a kayaking accident. Her love for Doug remains as strong today as it ever was. Nothing wrong with that, but there is not much room for robust critique as a result.
The core issue—or rather, the core gap—is how Chin and Vasarhelyi only superficially engage with the long history of gringo interference in South American affairs, not to mention the legacy of European colonialism. Whatever the admirable intentions behind the Tompkins’ actions, how they went about it reeks of high-handedness. And the blind eye of the directors, mired in paeans to high-mindedness, only makes it worse. If one wants a more objective take on the matter, I recommend Michael O’Donnell’s 2021 article about Doug Tompkins in The Atlantic.
Given the power of Chin and Vasarhelyi’s earlier work, calling Wild Life a major disappointment is an understatement. Filled with interviews—including from Tompkins’ friend Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia(the company)—that only mirror the aesthetics of one-note praise, the documentary ignores the very real possibility that all the money and time spent creating the parks could be for naught if future Chilean and Argentinian administrations rebel at the imposition from above. Nothing lasts anywhere—from revolutions to infrastructure—without local buy-in, and it’s unclear in this muddle of a movie how much of it actually exists. Hopefully somebody else will tackle the subject and do better with it, going forward. For now, Wild Life is a mess.