Genre: Biography, Drama
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffman
Following in the footsteps of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon is the latest actor to join forces with director Jean-Marc Vallée in search of Oscar glory and career vitality. Ditching the grotesque glamour of the Legally Blonde films and the sickly sentimentalism of Water For Elephants and Just Like Heaven, Witherspoon has strapped on her best hiking boots and scaled the mountain of mundane melodrama rife within the last 10 years of her back catalogue, and in the process has reached the unassailable peak of her career thus far.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir the film is base upon. In 1995, following a series of individual catastrophes involving her divorce and the death of her mother (Laura Dern, making an indelible mark with minimal screen time), Cheryl set off on a 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on a journey of redemption and self-discovery.
Like taking in a deep breath of cool, crisp country air, Wild is a remarkably refreshing film. It’s visually beguiling; Yves Bélanger’s gorgeous cinematography captures the splendor of Cheryl’s surrounding and the enormity of the task ahead, with isolated landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. Vallée displays commendable control over his camera throughout, ensuring that the beautiful backdrops never act as a distraction to Cheryl’s story.
Granted, the script is fundamentally a timeworn tale of a damaged soul overcoming great adversity to atone for their past, but placed in Vallée’s assured grasp it remains stimulating throughout. Working from Nick Hornby’s faithful adaptation of Strayed’s prose, the Dallas Buyers Club director succinctly explores both the physical and mental pain felt by Cheryl, intercutting her progress along the PCT with snapshots of the difficult life events that preceded it.
It is the matriarchal relationship found at the heart of these flashbacks that forms the film’s emotional core. Many are liable to compare Wild with the likes of last year’s Tracks and Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, but this is a richer and more rewarding expedition. Vallée weaves these memories into the story with scant regard for cinematic convention. They are not extended scenes of exposition, but an intimate mind map of sounds and images from Cheryl’s past, neatly mixed and edited, which gives her story greater impact and meaning. We glimpse the earlier, happier moments of Cheryl’s life, and see flickers of how eventual tragedies led her on a downwards spiral of self-destruction.
With a 27-kilo backpack strapped to her shoulders, it is Witherspoon (as both performer and producer) who carries the weight of the film. It’s a raw and understated performance of perfection that avoids the dramatic pitfalls of exaggeration, even if the occasionally clunky dialogue sometimes does not. There’s a gritty realism to the physical pain felt by Cheryl during the course of her travels; the agony of blisters and broken toenails is perpetual, as it the desire to pack it all in and head home. And heartbreaking honesty is found in the quieter moments of personal contemplation, which touchingly reflect on the nature of loss and grief.
It is primarily this power, ingrained within Witherspoon’s performance, which makes Wild well worth the journey. Sure it’s a film that wanders a well-worn path, but that doesn’t stop it being an astonishing adventure.