Wild (2014)

Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon finds herself in a film that is more than just Eat, Pray, Hike

Director: Jean-Marc Vallée

Cast: Reese Witherspoon (Cheryl Strayed), Laura Dern (“Bobbie” Grey), Thomas Sadoski (Paul), Michel Huisman (Jonathan), Gaby Hoffmann (Aimee), Kevin Rankin (Greg), W. Earl Brown (Frank), Mo McRae (Jimmy Carter), Keene McRae (Leif)

Ever thought tackling a 1,100 mile hike would be a fun adventure? The opening of Wild might change your mind. Gasp as Reese Witherspoon rips out a bleeding toe nail and then throws her ill-fitting hiking boots down a mountain, screaming abuse at them all the way! Want to grab that back-pack now?

In this adaptation of a memoir about loss and self-discovery, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed who (fairly impulsively) decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 to try to find in herself the woman her late mother “Bobbie” (Laura Dern) believed she could be. After Bobbie’s early death from cancer at 45, Cheryl had collapsed – ruining her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in an orgy of anonymous sex and heroin addiction. Now she wants to make a new start.

Adapted by Nick Hornby with a good deal of skill and emotional intelligence, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film is an interesting character study via the survivalist genre, mixed with a touching exploration of grief, loss and self-loathing. After throwing us into Day 26 with that bloodied toe-nail, the film rolls back to follow Cheryl’s walk: intercut with powerful memories of her relationship with her mother, each memory activated by different encounters along the way and bubbling into her mind along with a distinctive soundtrack (most especially Simon and Garfunkal’s El Condor Pasa) that reflects the music that reminds Cheryl of her mother.

It could have been a sentimental finding-yourself movie – Eat, Pray, Hike anyone? (I also rather like Reese Witherspoon Finds Herself in a Backpack) – and I won’t lie, there are elements of that. But maybe it caught me in the right mood, maybe because I’ve always fancied testing myself with an epic hike, but I actually found it intelligent, sensitive and just the right side of sentimental.

Wild carefully avoids simple points. It’s a film not about a long journey leading to revelation, but a journey that helps you accept all your past decisions, right or wrong. There is a pointed lack of emotional breakdowns, tearful confessions or flare ups of self-anger and revelation. Instead, it’s about the long grind of starting an internal journey towards contentment. Because trekking 1,100 miles is the long haul: there ain’t any easy ways out or short cuts on this trek.

The film’s principal asset is Reese Witherspoon. Also serving as producer, Witherspoon is in almost every single frame and delivers an under-played but very emotionally satisfying performance. She plays Cheryl as quietly determined, having already hit rock bottom and knowing every step she takes from now is upwards. She meets adversity – aside from the odd flash of frustration – with a stoic will and finds an increasing spiritual freedom in the wild that serves as an escape from the horrific wilderness of her self-destructive years. But she never lets us forget the pain that underpins this journey for Cheryl. It’s a very impressive performance.

The reminders of that pain are distributed through the film, which unflinchingly chronicles Cheryl’s escape from grief in the arms of a parade of sleazy men, anonymous hotel sex and (finally) shooting up heroin on the streets of San Francisco. It ends her marriage to Paul – but not their friendship, in the sort of adult emotional reaction you hardly ever see in a movie. Paul – played with warmth by Thomas Sadoski – may not be able to continue his marriage after discovering his wife’s parade of trust-breaking, but it doesn’t stop him from helping a person he loves who is in need.

All of this is nicely counterpointed by the hike itself. Naturally it’s all slightly episodic, as Cheryl moves from location to location, but Hornby’s script makes these vignettes really work. Vallée’s direction also does a fantastic job of intercutting between the long walk of 1995, and Cheryl’s memories of both her mother (played with a vibrancy that makes a huge impression from limited screen time by an Oscar-nominated Laura Dern) and her own emotional collapse after her death.

I also appreciated that Wild doesn’t shirk from showing the vulnerability of an attractive young woman hiking alone. Some potential predators are revealed to be the opposite: others are exactly what they appear to be. But not every encounter is one of potential danger: far from it.

Cheryl is met time and again by people who only appear to support, share their expertise and help her in her quest. At an early station, a man talks her through the huge amount of equipment she’s bought and advises what she can leave behind (Vallée opens the film with the strenuous effort, including rolling around on the floor, Cheryl has to go through just to put this backpack on). She finds a touch of romance with a handsome musician (a charming Michel Huisman). There’s also comedy, most of all with Cheryl’s encounter with a self-important journalist (Mo McRae), who won’t be convinced that she isn’t a female hobo.

This is all packaged together in a quiet, un-pretentious way that culminates in a thought-provoking monologue about the value of self-acceptance and putting aside regrets. Others would have layered on the sentiment, but here the balance is just right. With Witherspoon at the top of her game, Wild is a well-made and involving road trip that also makes you think.

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