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Wild Review: Punishingly Gentle

Friday, December 12, 2014 Rob Samuelson


Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writers: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (from her novel)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae

Wild opens with one of the most evocative, visually explanatory character introductions of the year. There is little vocalization beyond a couple swear words uttered by Reese Witherspoon's Cheryl. The camera tells us everything we need to know about her, her place in life, her frustrations and determinations. As she picks at her horribly beaten foot – hiking long distances is not nice to your feet – we know she's not about to give up on her search for … something. When her boots fall down the hill on which she rests, the vulgarity streams out as cathartic humor for the audience, but supreme frustration on her part, one of those “you've got to be kidding me” moments. But, even beyond the fact that we know there are almost two hours left of movie and it wouldn't make sense to have this be the end of her journey, we see why this woman will go the distance.

That's the thing about Cheryl. She can't stop. After a personal trauma as a young woman, she falls into a despair spiral. She starts smoking, then snorting, then shooting up heroin. Her marriage falls into disrepair because of her constant infidelity.

An interesting through line appears in these scenes, which filter in as flashbacks during her hike on the Pacific Coast Trail from the Mexican to Canadian borders. She's a little old to be falling apart. In the scenes depicting her college days, where she attends the same school as her “reinventing herself” mother, played by an eternally optimistic Laura Dern, Cheryl is a capable, cocky young woman, the type of go getter you can easily imagine having a high powered career. She shuts herself off from things – like her mother's beloved paperback authors – out of elitist pretensions, and only after her trauma does she start letting herself experience new things. Unfortunately for her, those new things are highly destructive and send her on a four-year binge of being lost. “I'm the girl who says yes,” she says to explain herself to her concerned friend, but she never believes it.

And so, this emotionally exhausted woman embarks on a 1,200-mile journey, on foot, with little to no training, to put herself in the way of beauty, as her mother always instructed her to do. And beauty is everywhere. Cheryl sweats her way through desert vistas, howls with coyotes, gets carried away by a stream's current, wanders through redwood forests, and plenty more. In a striking juxtaposition, everyone she meets on the trail has their own problems, like all people do, but they tend to have a much healthier way of dealing with them. They are more accepting of their faults, and director Jean-Marc Vallée (last year's far inferior Dallas Buyers Club) gets the most out of these actors in their short screen time. Where he goes wrong in a couple places is an overly symbolic red wolf/coyote thing that Cheryl sees at her most dire moments on the trail, meant to represent the disapproving glare of those who wish for her to be her best self. If it had appeared once, it might have worked, but several appearances, plus the obvious CGI used to render the creature does a disservice to the film, which Witherspoon and her costars need no help carrying. It's a bit of overkill and lack of trust in the terrific cast, but luckily it's fleeting and does not distract from the whole too much.

And why should it? Witherspoon does her career's best work here. She handles different ages (19-ish to late 20s) and the bumps along the way to maturity with grace and never faltering believability. Her anger at the unfairness of life bursts from her, even in a flashback where she sheepishly gives the finger in a heroin-addled daze to a man who just robbed her. Her path to acceptance of life not going her way is a difficult one, but she gently pushes the audience to join with her. It's easy to accept Wild's less than stellar moments when its heart is on its sleeve in these scenes. Cheryl Strayed would be proud.

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