Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallee
Premise: Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. Following the death of her mother and a descent into self-abuse, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) embarks on a 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in order to rehabilitate herself.
What Works: Much of Wild consists of the main character walking through the wilderness and frequently doing so alone. Like other movies with an isolated character, the movie succeeds or fails on the efforts of its lead actor and Wild has a terrific performance by Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. Witherspoon is an actress whose potential has rarely been tapped; she’s got tremendous range and has demonstrated a willingness to take risks and put herself in challenging roles. Wild features what is probably Witherspoon’s best performance to date. She plays a character who has dug herself into an emotional hole and has set out on an immense physical undertaking in order to work her way through her issues. Witherspoon and the filmmakers don’t idealize their portrayal of Stayed and they aren’t afraid to have a few laughs in her foolish moments but they do so without cheapening her character. Rather, these few mistakes and silly moments humanize Strayed and help Witherspoon overcome her movie star persona to embody a character who is much more real than a lot of female characters in Hollywood films. Wild also has a critical supporting performance by Laura Dern as Strayed’s mother. The relationship between mother and daughter is a credible one and the strengh of Dern’s presence permeates the movie, making Stayed’s grief empathetic and not just narcissistic. As a matter of filmmaking, Wild is extremely well shot. The movie captures the tension between the majesty of a sunset and the unforgiving harshness of the desert. Wild doesn’t look like a major Hollywood production set up shop in the wilderness and there is an organic quality to the design of the film that gives Wild a lot of credibility. That grit extends to the portrayal of the main character. When attractive actresses are given rough parts there is a resistance to making them too dirty but Witherspoon has the look of someone who is actually walking the Pacific Crest Trail rather than someone who just got out of her air conditioned trailer.
What Doesn’t: For a story about a character walking from point A to point B, the filmmakers of Wild tend to get lost. The movie is very unfocused. Some of its confusion is narrative. The film flashes backward and forward on the timeline, beginning with Cheryl Strayed on the opening day of her 1000 mile hike and then intercutting moments from her past such as her relationship with her alcoholic father, her mother’s untimely death by cancer, and Strayed’s descent into promiscuity and drug abuse. The trouble is that the placement of the flashbacks seems arbitrary and they aren’t arranged chronologically so the order of these past events is unclear. Specifically, it’s not clear how her marriage fits into her backstory. Strayed and her ex-husband remain friends after their divorce and she checks in with him by phone at various points throughout her hike but there is no shape or trajectory to their conversations. That’s the other problem of this film. Strayed’s journey was an attempt to straighten out her life by forcing herself into a situation where she had few distractions and could be alone with her thoughts but by the end of the hike it is not clear what it is she has learned about herself. In the final scene the filmmakers attempt to force an epiphany onto the movie but the story isn’t really leading to that point. Strayed’s geographical travels are enough to make the film satisfying but the picture does not pack the thematic punch that’s intended.
Bottom Line: At its most basic level, Wild successfully tells the story of a woman putting herself through a physical challenge and it features a career-best performance by Reese Witherspoon. The film comes up short in its deeper aspirations but what the movie does right far outweighs what it does wrong.
Episode: #524 (January 11, 2015)