Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed
Michiel Huisman as Jonathan
Gaby Hoffmann as Aimee
Laura Dern as Bobbi
Thomas Sadoski as Paul
Kevin Rankin as Greg
Brian Van Holt as Ranger
Charles Baker as Tj
Nick Eversman as Richie
W. Earl Brown as Frank
Mo McRae as Jimmy Carter
J.D. Evermore as Clint
Cliff De Young as Ed
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
After the death of her mother (Laura Dern), Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) life is falling part, as she starts taking drugs and having promiscuous sex as she cheats on her husband. Trying to get control of her life, Cheryl decides to hike a thousand miles across California’s Pacific Crest Trail on her own, a journey that will help her discover nature as well as herself.
One has to think that making a movie about Cheryl Strayed could involve facing almost as many obstacles as Strayed did herself while taking on the seemingly insurmountable challenge that was the Pacific Crest Trail. The notion that there aren’t any great roles for older women seems to have been lost on Reese Witherspoon, who bought the rights to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir and had the wherewithal of putting together an eclectic team of filmmakers to allow it to be experienced in a cinematic way. The onus on her then is to overcome the general expectations that come with starring in a film like this, especially coming so soon on the heels of a similarly empowering journey in “Tracks.”
We meet Cheryl midway through her journey as she arrives at the top of a mountain and has run out of patience with her shoes, throwing them down the mountain in frustration. We then cut back to the beginning as she overloads her enormous backpack with everything she thinks she’ll need for her journey. Although she can barely lift it, she eventually sets off on her trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, completely on her own.
“Wild” uses a similar method of storytelling as Danny Boyle’s “127 Hours” in that it isn’t just about following someone through their life-changing experience, as it is about getting into Cheryl’s mindset both before and during her thousand-mile hike. There are many scenes with very little actual dialogue since Cheryl is mostly out in the wild by herself, but that’s not to take away from the screenplay by author Nick Hornby, which finds a way to get into her head using flashbacks and such. This is where we get to experience what a rough life Cheryl has had, and it never glosses over her drug use or the promiscuous sex she’s having behind the back of her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski).
As hard as it might be to set aside any apprehensions you might have about this being a “Reese Witherspoon movie,” you often forget you’re even watching the actress. This is not a glamorous role by any means, quite the opposite, but it’s very much a revelatory role for Witherspoon, one that confirms what anyone who’s been following her career since “Cruel Intentions” and “Election” already knows, that she’s capable of anything. And this role allows the actress to run a gauntlet of tone and emotion.
Much of the film deals with the relationship between Cheryl and her mother Bobbi, who escaped from an abusive drunken father when the kids were young. There’s a lot of drama in their lives, but Laura Dern brings a joyous playfulness to the role that helps you understand how devastating it is when she gets sick. Some disbelief may need to be suspended when considering the age difference between the two actresses, but the idea is that Cheryl’s mother was young at heart and Cheryl acts older than her age, having to help take care of her younger brother, and in that context, the two actresses work so well together.
As much as the movie documents Cheryl’s own journey of self-discovery, it’s just as much about the eccentric characters she meets on that journey, which keeps things light enough to counterbalance the drama. Some of these encounters involve creepy men she meets while travelling the trail, being that she’s a fairly small woman on her own. The first of them is a hard-working farmer who takes her to his place in the middle of nowhere, but later, she meets guys whose unwanted interests are of a more personal nature. But she also meets a lot of friendly people along the way who go out of their way to help her, mostly for the same reason.
Montreal’s Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club”) once again proves himself to be a true artist of a filmmaker when it comes to telling a story in an unconventional way, giving Cheryl’s journey a haunting and dream-like quality with music and voice-over that floats in reverb. These things and the non-linear structure while showing moments from Cheryl’s past creates a tapestry of images and sounds that makes for a singular experience.
Although much of the film takes place among the remote trails along the PCT, the few times Cheryl does venture out into society gives us an authentic look at the Pacific Northwest during the early ‘90s, including events like the death of Jerry Garcia and a reference to Four Non-Blondes. All of these elements add up to creating something much better than the various parts.
The Bottom Line:
On the surface, Cheryl Strayed’s story seems like a fairly simple woman-against-nature premise, but Witherspoon’s performance and the unconventional way Strayed’s story is told goes a long way to create a far more lasting experience.
Wild is now playing in New York and Los Angeles and will expand into other cities over the next few months.