Release: Wednesday, December 3, 2014 (limited)
Written by: Nick Hornby
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
In Wild Reese Witherspoon is desperate to escape her home life. Does she succeed?
I could spoil the movie right from the get-go and answer that question but I actually do have a heart, so I won’t. (Plus, I’m fairly sure anyone should be able to guess the outcome anyway.) With a narrative as surprisingly complex as that of Wild, ruining a movie about a woman who is ostensibly getting away from it all for the sake of getting away from it all is kind of hard to do.
The director of last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club returns with an offering that refuses to be undermined by cliché, of which there could be a decent amount given that the movie does not begin well in that department. The rocky start to her epic journey seems to be pulled from a textbook on how to make hiking/camping look like a pain in the ass. Things like figuring out how to set up a tent, learning how to preserve fuel, trimming down one’s pack load. Of course, this is an adaptation of the real Cheryl Strayed’s written account of her 90+ days in the great outdoors, ‘Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.’ In that regard the film is accurate, but for experienced backpackers the potential for eye-rolling might seem alarmingly high in the opening sequences.
For all of the premature panic a certain subgroup of the general moviegoing masses might experience, Vallée’s picturesque drama still opens with quite the attention-grabber. It’s Cheryl atop a razor-sharp ridge, overlooking the vast expanse of wilderness that sprawls out before her ad infinitum. She has stopped to nurse a badly bruised and bloodied toe, an ailment she appears to have been dealing with for some time. In a fit of frustration she loses both hiking boots down the mountainside and with the fade-to-black we end up back in civilization in the next scene. What is this girl doing out here? Why is she doing this alone? What’s the end game here?
In the beginning we know two things about Cheryl: 1) she doesn’t seem happy. Presumably she will be hiking to get away from something negative ongoing in her domestic life; and 2) she is quite stubborn. That’s a trait that carries as many positive connotations as it does negative: in the earlygoing we are treated to a humorous scene in which the first-timer is attempting to mount her external frame in her hotel room, a pack that looks like it could easily outweigh its carrier. It doesn’t exactly go as planned but she makes it work. Foreshadowing? Yes, yes that is foreshadowing I smell.
Over the course of an unexpectedly engaging and semi-non-linear two hour timeline — you’d be surprised how effective cutting between segments of the PCT and her life back in Minneapolis can be — these questions, among many others, are addressed but they aren’t answered in the manner in which you might expect. No solution is presented without complication or having to sacrifice something else; no weed is killed completely unless the roots themselves are cut, and this is precisely what Vallée is hoping to convey by flashing back and forth between the two timelines — that of her past and of her present predicament on the trail.
Wild is fundamentally a psychological journey into the heart and soul of this daring, if inexperienced explorer. In fact the inexperience is what helps elevate the stakes considerably. Witherspoon delivers a performance that affects viscerally and consistently. She’s strong-willed, defiant even; stubborn, yes but eventually even that character flaw develops into something more useful — determination. It’s compelling stuff witnessing the transformation of this previously doomed character. (Is doomed too strong a word?)
Around Witherspoon gathers a small cast that delivers big. Laura Dern plays Cheryl’s eternally upbeat mother Bobbi, who has raised her and her brother (there were three siblings, if you want to get technical, but the film decides to pair it down to a more simple family dynamic) on her own for as long as she has been divorced from her abusive ex-husband, whom she still loves dearly. Dern is wonderful in the role. There’s also Gabby Hoffman who puts in quality, albeit limited screen time as a friend of Cheryl’s still living in Minneapolis. And Thomas Sadoski plays Paul, Cheryl’s ex-husband. He’s not in it much but he also makes his moments count, powerfully reporting back to us the state his life has become in the absence of his wife who thought it wise to go hiking on a trail for months at a time on her own.
In short, Wild is a movie that continually surprises with its thoughtful, provocative introspection, spectacular vistas (that part isn’t so much surprising) and keen sense of direction. It’s not a predictable movie, even despite a few sign postings. Witherspoon’s determination to overcome her haunted past is akin to the bold vision Emile Hirsch’s Chris McCandless had of a future without material possession. I urge you to get your ticket and lose yourself in this well-acted drama.
Recommendation: Despite reservations, Wild is a unique experience. Its only shopworn elements are how it initially presents the challenge of hiking and camping. Of course, even if this was cliched through-and-through, the performances are still enough to make this film soar aloft. The outdoors-oriented should really give this a go. In a way it is an odd blend of mainstream acting talent with the intimacy of exploring nature on a solo backpacking trip but I find the combination to work to great effect. This is now the second extremely well-made film I’ve seen from Jean-Marc Vallée in as many years. I think Dallas Buyers Club is the superior film, but really, not by much.
Running Time: 115 mins.
Quoted: “Finish that sentence. Why do I have to walk a thousand miles. . .?”
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