Witherspoon Burns Brightly In Stirring "Wild"

Summer 1995. 26 year-old Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, “Walk The Line”) is a real-life lost soul, entombed in grief for her late mother, love for the husband she betrayed, and drugs. Heroin, especially. She’s cordoned herself off from the world at large, becoming her own last resort. Her life has devolved into a choose-your-own-adventure story that can end only one of two ways.

What Strayed finds in herself is remarkable. Even at her most fragile, she’s not only an exemplar of self-empowerment, but future author, unknowingly about to pen her own bright future in big, broad, often harrowing strokes. As she sets off on a journey along the punishing Pacific Crest Trail, her tower of baggage serves as obvious visual metaphor that works in spite of its obviousness – or, more likely, because of it.

Jean-Marc Vallee’s Wild (based on Strayed’s Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail) is two hours of immaculately crafted allegory for all of life’s struggles, a tale that was amazingly, literally lived out by a 26 year-old who had every excuse in the world to crumble. That Witherspoon is excellent in the role should surprise no one. That she so wholly makes it her own while remaining faithful to Strayed’s prose? That’s remarkable, a jump few actresses would effort, let alone land so convincingly.

Having learned from the limitations of his last effort, “Dallas Buyers Club,” Vallee embraces the free-flowing, winding nature of his story, beginning at its midpoint and backtracking, confidently pulling at our heartstrings with heavy use of flashbacks. The film ghosts through space and time as unpredictably as the weather on the Pacific Crest Trail, tracing Cheryl’s upbringing as closely as her journey from the Mexican to the Canadian border.

The trail – 2,663 miles of rough terrain – proves small potatoes in relation to Cheryl’s backstory. The mercurial relationship between her and her mother (Laura Dern, “Jurassic Park”) gives the story its heartbeat, a classically drawn parent-child dynamic through which the film imparts torrents of wisdom. Dern is spectacular in the role, as good as she’s ever been, and Witherspoon wisely lets her take over the film whenever she’s on screen.

Thomas Sadoski (HBO’s “The Newsroom”) plays a smaller part as Cheryl’s recently divorced husband, fading into the backdrop of supporting characters that do little more than serve as touchstones for our heroine. No one other than Witherspoon and Dern are memorable, but they don’t need to be. “Wild” is a deeply intimate film about exploring one’s innermost thoughts and fears and joys, and the sorrow that looms over it requires laser-like focus on a minimal number of characters.

Nick Hornby’s screenplay is unexpectedly tight, only meandering when its heroine does. An aside featuring a reporter is as funny as anything Witherspoon has ever done, and the symmetry of the second act won’t be lost on attentive viewers. Some overt product placement leaves a bitter aftertaste, but even then, it underlines how vital a small item can seem in the face of total isolation.

The film could be viewed as overly manipulative in its execution of certain passages, but it’s really good at it, shepherding us exactly where it wants us to go when it wants us to go there. Vallee’s inclusion of some tangential images – see: the kaleidoscopic visual collage that opens the film – underlines his understanding of the material as something universally relatable. But with the filmmaker’s own distinct visual stamp.

“Wild” might not have external majesty of Sean Penn’s “Into The Wild” or, accordingly, much of novelty factor, but it’s as internally vibrant and emotionally charged as anything to hit screens in 2014. It’s essential female-driven cinema in a world that needs more of exactly that.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 3, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Kevin Rankin, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language)