Wild is more than a showcase for Reese Witherspoon’s performance, it’s a meditative journey that is refreshingly funny, insightful, and poignant.
In Wild, Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who in 1994 decides to hike a large chunk of the Pacific Crest Trail (making a thousand-mile journey from California to just south of Washington state) as a form of self-therapy, after years of engaging in self-destructive and dangerous behavior – after a tumultuous upbringing that culminated in an extra-difficult personal loss for Cheryl and her brother, Leif (Keene McRae). Cheryl is provided with support (both emotional and material) on this journey by her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann), as well as her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski).
As she deals with relentless physical wear and tear, isolation, and various geographical obstacles, Cheryl also encounters a number of people – some odd, some threatening, and some unexpectedly kind – who help her make sense of her own experiences… and maybe, find acceptance with her past, so that she might move forward at last.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and based on the real-life Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, Wild is the sort of awards season film that, at first glance, might come off as little more than another story about a privileged individual who goes searching for relief from their “problems”; a grittier version of Eat Pray Love, so to speak. Fortunately, that is not at all the case with Wild, which is instead a compelling and engaging journey through the wilderness, offering a genuine feminist portrayal of its protagonist and the world around her.
Credit for that goes to not just Vallée, but also Witherspoon (who both headlined and produced Wild) and, in particular, Nick Hornby for his effective script adaptation of Strayed’s source material. Hornby is both a seasoned author and screenwriter, having penned the source books for High Fidelity and About a Boy, as well as the screenplay for An Education; thus, he’s able to translate Strayed’s novelistic narrative into a more streamlined, yet still thematically-rich, cinematic story. This allows Strayed’s original narrative to retain its literary qualities, yet also come to life in a way that’s simply not possible on the written page. In short, Wild properly embraces its identity as a film.
Another key to Wild‘s success, as a cinematic experience, is the editing by Vallée (who is credited here under the moniker John Mac McMurphy) and his Dallas Buyers Club collaborator, Martin Pensa. Wild frequently jumps back and forth from whatever Cheryl is doing in the present to her fragmented recollections and memories of the past, but these transitions are dictated by a cohesive emotional logic, allowing these flashbacks to flow smoothly and (in turn) bring out the deeper meaning inherent to Cheryl’s experiences on the PCT.
The solid cinematography by Yves Bélanger gives rise to effective bits of visual symbolism (be it Cheryl’s hefty backpack or the bloody injuries she accrues during her hike), as the film’s unvarnished imagery compliments the meditative and warts-and-all nature of Strayd’s self-reflection. That said, Wild‘s visual design, on the whole, isn’t a technical component that stands out so much. However, Vallée’s true strength as a director has generally been his ability to draw out more naturalistic performances from his cast (as evidenced by Dallas Buyers Club‘s acting Oscar wins), and that holds true with his work on Wild.
Reese Witherspoon aptly handles what is generally a one-woman show as Cheryl Strayed in Wild, by delivering a performance that avoids ever devolving into dramatic showboating or unearned emotional catharthis. The film often requires her to subtly (and wordlessly) express many different emotions in her encounters with other people – be it fear, relief, or (in one particularly memorable highway-side encounter) being utterly confounded, and Witherspoon rises to meet the challenge. Moreover, her work as Cheryl winds up serving the film as a whole, as opposed to overshadowing it.
Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi, is just as good (if perhaps not even better) than Witherspoon, with her supporting turn in Wild. The Bobbi character is only ever seen through Cheryl’s recollections, yet even with limited screen time Dern creates a heart-breaking portrait of a mother who’s bright-eyed, damaged, fearless, and fragile all at once. Bobbi and Cheryl’s relationship is the emotional core of Wild, and Dern ends up being as important to the film’s success (in that regard) as she was to The Fault in Our Stars earlier this year.
Gaby Hoffmann (Girls), Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom), and Keene McRae (CBGB) all do fine work as Cheryl’s support during her (literal) trek to recovery, even within a short amount of screen time. However, the most memorable supporting cast members are the various characters actors as people whom Cheryl meets on her journey, with the standouts including W. Earl Brown (Deadwood), Mo McRae (Sons of Anarchy), and Michiel Huisman (Game of Thrones); their scenes make for very necessary spices that help give the film a spirit than it might’ve not had otherwise.
Wild is more than a showcase for Reese Witherspoon’s performance, it’s a meditative journey that is refreshingly funny, insightful, and poignant. The film is worth a look in theaters for those who want to keep up during the 2015 awards season race; however, even those moviegoers who are far from being invested in the awards rush ought to consider heading off into the wilderness alongside Witherspoon.
Wild is now playing in U.S. theaters nation-wide. It runs 119 minutes long and is Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.