2014, R, 115 mins.
2014, R, 115 mins.
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed / Laura Dern as Bobbi / Gaby Hoffmann as Aimee / Thomas Sadoski as Paul / W. Earl Brown as Frank / Charles Baker as TJ / Kevin Rankin as Greg / Brian Van Holt as Ranger / J.D. Evermore as Clint
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée / Written by Nick Hornby
WILD is a surprisingly engaging and frequently moving film considering that it involves a subject matter that’s not particularly cinematic.
Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film concerns the fact-based story of
Cheryl Strayed (based on her own 2012 memoir) of how she decided – after
a devastating personal loss and subsequent self-destructive behavior – to clean up her act and engage in a hike along the Pacific Crest
Trail from the Mojave Desert and all the way to the Washington state border.
The arduous journey was over 1100 miles, which she did completely
on her own without much contact with the outside world. Filming the real
life tale of a three month nature hike may not seem inherently dramatic,
but Vallee somehow makes it work with some crafty editing choices, an
equally shrewd script by Nick Hornby, and a resoundingly powerful,
career-high performance by Reese Witherspoon, who gives her best work
arguably since her Oscar winning role in WALK
wisely, Hornby and Vallee opt to tell Cheryl’s (Witherspoon) unique life
story in the least conventional manner possible, absconding away from the
typically straightforward and linear approach to obligatory biopics.
Instead of wasting time with longwinded and tiresome introductions
and expository scenes, WILD immediately thrusts us into the more hellish
moments of Cheryl’s hike right from the very first scene.
We see her bruised, bloodied, and extremely fatigued. Her one foot
is so boil and blister riddled that she is forced to physically remove her
big toe nail, during which time she loses one of her hiking boots as it
falls down a steep cliff. She
screams and curses in panic-stricken anger and frustration.
It’s a very unceremonious manner to introduce us to Cheryl, but
it effectively and expeditiously immerses us in her story.
The rest of the film relies heavily on flashbacks meticulously
sprinkled in throughout the narrative, which trusts audiences to pick up the
pieces of Cheryl’s life and make some semblance of it as the film moves
story set in the present is, of course, Cheryl’s journey up the west
coast of America in 1995, during which time she encounters the typical
ordeals – some minor, some physically and emotionally tortuous – that
befalls hikers. When the heat
of the desert isn’t getting to her, fear of rattlesnakes and predators
always remains a constant source of danger, not to mention a depleting
food supply and – in one instance – bringing along the wrong
mini-propane cylinder to cook her food.
WILD is not entirely humor-free, though, as there are some genuine
laughs to be had at the expense of Cheryl’s greenhorn status as a hiker.
In an early sequence showing her prep a massively oversized
backpack – which is nearly as large as her – Cheryl finds a way to get
it on her petite frame, which has amusing results.
Like most people going on a long trip, Cheryl egregiously
actual hike in WILD is almost of cursory interest, though, to the life
that Cheryl led beforehand, which is shown, as mentioned, in a series of
reminiscing flashbacks throughout her hiking experience.
Cheryl fondly recalls her relatively happy childhood with her
brother and mother (Laura Dern), but darkness begins to creep into her
memories – and the plot in general – as we learn of how Cheryl’s
father was an abusive alcoholic that forced her mother to leave him with
children in tow. Just when
things were looking on the positive for Cheryl’s mother, she becomes
afflicted with cancer and dies, which put Cheryl on a tailspin of
self-implosion. Her marriage
to Paul (Thomas Sadowski) hits rock bottom as Cheryl turns to heroin and
an adulterous and hedonistic lifestyle that involves her having sex with
multiple strange men. At one
point Cheryl does fully comprehend the severity of her ways and decides to
rehab herself. “I’m going
to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” as her inner
monologue/voiceover narration track informs us.
The hike journey, alas, was her therapy.
is a fairly engrossing wilderness survival odyssey, to be sure, and
Cheryl’s grit and determination to attempt such an incomparable feat
certainly commands and deserves respect.
Yet, I was more moved by her tales of family distress, failure, and
eventually personal redemption. Vallee
seems more preoccupied with supplying a deeply personal motivation behind
Cheryl’s rationale to make her thousand mile journey; the film is not so
much about the actual hike itself, per se, but rather the journey that leads up
to it, despite the fact that most scenes in the film showcase Cheryl in
the wild. Vallee’s manner
of evoking Cheryl’s memories from the past – using a loose,
free-wheeling and improvisational juxtaposing of images and moments from her
life with her mother – sort of visually suggests how memory works.
We often recall those that meant the most to us in fleeting
subconscious glimpses – which arguably works more powerfully here in the
film than the more mechanical approach of tailoring subplots and talkative
sequences. I respect how WILD
allows us to decipher Cheryl’s life by peeling back one small layer at a
time after another of her recollections.
The audience takes a journey, so to speak, in this film too.
has always been a wonderfully empowered actress for suggesting an unfussy
and forthright tenacity to her characters.
Her work here as Cheryl is no exception, as she has to run the full
gambit of the emotional spectrum with her multi-dimensional and flawed
character. Cheryl is by no
means a “perfect” woman, to be sure.
She made unpardonably blunders in life, including habitually abusing
and being unfaithful to her husband. Yet,
Witherspoon is so deceptively strong at relaying Cheryl’s greatest
failings in life while simultaneously showing her grit, determination, and
commendable emotional commitment to her spiritual healing.
The other performance of strong merit is from Laura Dern, who
despite being just nine years Witherspoon’s senior manages to plausibly
inhabit the role of Cheryl’s mother with a luminous optimism…even when
life deals her multiple catastrophic blows.
The fact that Dern creates a fully realized character in brief
flashback snippets here and there is a testament to her superlative
WILD sort of writes itself into a corner, though, as it reaches a conclusion. When Cheryl finally arrives at the end of her journey…the film sort of just abruptly ends as well without much in the way of an epilogue. It’s a bit disappointingly jarring considering Cheryl’s massive undertaking and the confluence of events that acted as a catalyst for her journey. Yet, it’s so exceptionally rare to find troubled and imperfect, but headstrong, independent minded, and resilient female characters written with grace and soul in movies these days that I’m willing to turn a blind eye to such nitpicky dramatic flaws. WILD, much like Vallee’s DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, is a thoroughly transfixing tale of a suffering main character on a journey of reawakening. Both films are about people – at their lowest points in their respective lives – fighting through barriers placed in their paths.