Review: 'Wild'


[vc_row][vc_column width="2/3"][vc_column_text disable_pattern="true" align="left" margin_bottom="0"]Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is introduced as a woman screaming at a shoe. She’s on top of a mountain, peeling off her hiking boots, ripping a bloody toenail from her foot. One of the boots falls into a chasm, and instead of clinging to its twin for dear life, she chucks it into the abyss as well and shrieks with all her might. It’s a powerful start to Wild, and the first of many glimpses into what makes Strayed tick. She’s hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, a 1,100-mile journey that many don’t expect her to complete. It’s a sort of penance for her sins, which are shared in greater detail as she crosses treacherous terrain and begins to accept the choices she’s made throughout her life.

If you care about the inside baseball minutia of the movie business, Wild can feel like a Reese Witherspoon awards grab. She’s both the star and the producer, in a role that requires some Academy-friendly dirtying up, and it’s the kind of story that’s built to win an Oscar. Overcoming challenges, battling addiction, suffering for your failures in both a visual and emotional fashion; that shit is consistently eaten up.

But there’s a reason it’s gobbled with such ferocity: it works. Storytelling isn’t about reinventing the wheel; there are tropes that cut to the core and speak to our humanity, our belief in second chances and our desire to see a deserving person rise up against adversity. Wild touches on many of those without cramming Strayed’s quest for redemption down anyone’s throat, and the script from Nick Hornby (famed novelist and writer of An Education) deftly weaves in details from her movie-inspiring memoir as thought-driven voiceover or the frustrated mumbles of someone trudging through the mountains alone.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée was wildly praised for his work on Dallas Buyers Club, but that felt like a unique story pressed into a cookie-cutter template with a little pizzazz added for good measure. Vallée employs the same sort of stylish touches that felt forced there – brief, out-of-context flashbacks to past events that become cohesive over time – but now they fit like a glove. Strayed’s hike propels us forward, but snippets of the relationships she’s left behind or lost along the way are dropped into our laps at narratively appropriate times. We’re slowly exposed to her past life as she’s learning how to process and handle what’s happened.

And Witherspoon is a force to be reckoned with; she doesn’t slip into the character so much as work for your admiration. An early scene where she comically struggles with her oversized pack is followed by dark, dreary scenes of anonymous sex, drug use and a deep slide into despair. She isn’t the first of America’s sweethearts to play off her image and get grimy, but the buildup and pacing make each little reveal incredibly compelling.

Equally wonderful is Laura Dern – just nine years older than Witherspoon but seen only in flashbacks – as Strayed’s mother, a proud woman who joyfully reinvented herself after fleeing from an abusive husband. Dern is a wonderful actress who deserves better after nailing a similarly themed lead role on HBO’s Enlightened, but the infectious enthusiasm she brings to every scene makes Witherspoon’s contrasting despair feel that much more earned.

Occasionally, Hornby and Vallée pack too much in; there are several laments over a long-lost family horse that don’t quit fit and add unneeded remorse to an already overflowing pile. But overall, Wild rarely oversteps its bounds, and the casting a cavalcade of television’s finest supporting actors – Herc from Friday Night Lights! Dan Dority! Skinny Pete! – as travelers Strayed meets on the trail can never hurt.

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  • Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
  • Written by: Nick Hornby
  • Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
  • Runtime: 115 minutes
  • Release date: December 5, 2014


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