Arduous, clear-eyed, ruggedly beautiful, and literal-minded, Wild is a sturdy feminist character study that’s a bit pedestrian, a soul-searching adventure picture of self-discovery about the profound power of nature to provide space to reset yourself.
Reeling from the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon, Election) has lost all hope. After years of reckless, self-destructive behaviour, she makes a rash decision. With no experience – driven only by sheer determination – Cheryl hikes more than 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone.
Both the material and the setting seem to have shaken something loose in Witherspoon, who scuffs callouses from her heart with each slow, plodding, blistered step. Not since June Carter Cash in Walk the Line has she been so present to a character, moving away from those recent uptight romantic-comedy cuties and toward the breezy, self-determined trendsetters of her early career. There’s not a shred of her America’s Sweetheart persona; she’s unvarnished. Still, it’s difficult to buy her as a junkie, with her downward spiral of a life yanked out of orbit by the gravity of pernicious influences. She remains at arm’s length, and her character arc is a slender as a sapling.
The gifted Laura Dern (Inland Empire, The Master) should net a Best Supporting Actress nod for her outstanding, more deserving work as Cheryl’s spunky, nurturing mother. Unfortunately for us, Dern isn’t the main character, and is relegated to passing glimpses of kitchen embraces and hospital bedside visits. While Cheryl’s journey is interesting, it’s not on the same level as the one embarked upon by Christopher McCandless in Sean Penn’s 2007 hitchhiking wilderness drama Into the Wild.
Translating personal enlightenment, solitary musings, and raw despondency into a scrappy, lively script is screenwriter/novelist Nick Hornby (An Education), who does an admirable job even if it tangles with rote insights at least half of the time. It’s partly not his fault, burdened as it is, out of fidelity to the memoir, with expendable life lessons and gratuitous explanations that it dispenses, like CliffsNotes, at every opportunity.
Québécois writer-director Jean-Marc Vallée pulls the narrative apart and relies upon the considerable contributions of Witherspoon and Hornby, yet assembles something that doesn’t feel entirely organic. His Dallas Buyers Club was a braver film. His Wild never matches the blunt audacity of its title; it would perhaps be better described as “Tame.” Although the scenery could stop the heart of a mountain goat, swelling orchestral cues and convenient epiphanies do not make an exceptional redemption movie.
Like mountain climber survival story 127 Hours, Wild is very nervous about boring its audience with its protagonist’s solitude. The flashbacks are too brief to provide context, and the didactic, show-and-tell approach is disappointing. It meanders, and the fragmented piecemeal editing is quite distracting, especially jarring towards the halfway point in which the routine switchbacks occur more and more swiftly. By keeping everything moving forward so cautiously and so neatly, it implores us to feel, but not to feel anything dangerous.
I’m not wild about Wild – above all, the personal reinvention doesn’t feel earned – but there’s enough to merit a recommendation. Arriving at peace is less provocative, and less satisfying, than embracing the struggle, in cinema and in life.