Published on December 17th, 2014 | by Dan Nicholls1
Is Wild another lame tale of first world problems wandering into the forest or cunning Oscar bait with special attention paid to Reese Witherspoon’s performance?
Coming on the heels of his Oscar-winning hit Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée once again takes a Hollywood star and strips them bare of all vanity; in a part that screams ‘bound for Academy Awards glory,’ Reese Witherspoon excels in a role that seems like typical awards bait on the surface but manages to simultaneously reveal and hide different layers of an increasingly complex woman. The portrait that Wild weaves of Cheryl Strayed feels, overall, real in its balance of the many positive and negative aspects of the character’s personality. Although the film may ultimately end on a bit of a flat note, Wild manages to rise above the many misgivings I had with the similarly themed Into the Wild and Eat, Pray, Love.
Following the death of her mother (portrayed in flashbacks by Laura Dern) and the dissolution of her marriage, Cheryl packs a bag twice her size and embarks on a thousand-mile hike through the American wilderness. She’s hitting the trail trying to heal raw wounds and find some form of forgiveness within her for mistreating everyone in her life, including herself, for many years. Along Cheryl’s spiritual desert hike she faces the usual physical obstacles with lack of food and water, wildlife encounters, etc. but she also gets to encounter enough colorful characters to brighten the moments when she and the audience get to escape her head for a bit. Throughout her trek, we’re shown flashbacks dramatizing the circumstances and decisions that led Cheryl to her own desolate trail.
The flashbacks in Wild appear in brief, fleeting glimpses as well as in lengthier scenes featuring Cheryl and her family life with her mother. And for every moment in the main linear narrative where it feels like the film is pumping the character’s tires a bit more than necessary (Cheryl seems to encounter few people on her journey that want nothing more than to help her out for reasons that aren’t always clear), there’s a flashback scene to counter it by portraying Cheryl as an extremely unlikeable person, doing very unlikeable things. Those two extremes of the character wouldn’t have the same effect that they do without the nimble skills of Reese Witherspoon; the actress slips into Cheryl at numerous high and low points in her life with ease and a sense of genuine understanding of her character’s inner thought process. The film’s biggest misstep may be, strangely enough, having too much Witherspoon: the actress is at the top of her game in the film, for sure, but seems a bit out of place portraying a high school aged Cheryl. Casting a different actress for those scenes would have resulted in less on-screen time and range for the actress but perhaps would have produced a better overall emotional association for the audience.
The screenplay by Nick Hornby (the author of the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy) crackles with wit when the time calls for it and presents intense scenes of emotional vulnerability and rawness when dealing with Cheryl’s unfaithfulness to her husband and descent into drug addiction. Witherspoon, who throws herself wholeheartedly into the role, matches the emotional heights of the story beat-for-beat. However, the pacing at which Wild hits its beats is perhaps a bit too uneven to make for a fully enjoyable journey, and its emotional peaks aren’t overly moving and certainly didn’t jerk many tears during the screening I attended. Still, Wild manages to impress on enough levels to make up for its lesser aspects. It’s not the most absorbing tale of survival while out on wild terrain, but it offers some unique psychological insight into a character worth following for a couple hours, if not a thousand miles.