I absolutely love film criticism because uncovering a passionate connection, a tie between the audience and motion picture, makes critique writing such a therapeutic breeze. Movies are supposed to take us on a journey – or in the case of Wild, a 94-day outdoor adventure – but when you strike an emotional connection with the characters on screen, the journey becomes a part of your being. A movie with soul is such a reflective treat, as it becomes something more than mere entertainment, which is exactly what Jean-Marc Vallée keeps in mind when adapting (the real) Cheryl Strayed’s heartfelt memoir to screen.
Vallée’s film casts Reese Witherspoon as the cinematic version of Cheryl Strayed, a woman whose life spirals erratically out of control in a destructive parade of debauchery after her mother passes away at a young age. Losing her husband, moral compass, and personal well-being, Cheryl decides to embark on a 1,100 mile solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to clear her mind and start anew. Along her journey Cheryl reflects on painful memories, searching for the life she used to love and empowered by nothing but nature’s beauty and her own willingness to push on. Every interaction furthers her progress, from chance encounters to unfortunate preparations, but Cheryl presses on not only for herself, but for those who sacrificed everything for her as well.
You can’t talk about Wild without recognizing Witherspoon’s best performance since Walk The Line. She brings so much power and passion to the entire project as Cheryl Strayed, a heroic female character willing to wear her scars and vulnerability with pride while turning them into her greatest strengths. Strand is a soul who tortured herself in the face of grief, searching for quick highs (sex/drugs/everything in between) to mask the dark lows of sober recognition, yet Cheryl doesn’t cower and cry into a pint of ice cream as typical female archetypes might – an empowering triumph that Witherspoon selflessly brings to life. Strayed takes control of her life, turns regret into motivation, and accepts her life-altering deterioration as a sign of sorts, laughing in defeat’s face. Witherspoon is strong – stronger than Hollywood stereotypically lets women be – which makes for a defining point in the accomplished actress’ career.
Much of Wild relies on Witherspoon, in what should be an obvious statement that comes along with the whole “solo hike” story, but the extent of her fearless portrayal of Cheryl Strayed still manages a branding impression. Flashbacks pull back the drapes on Strayed’s previous depravity, ranging from an endless highlight reel of random sexual encounters to heroine usage, but Witherspoon never once shies away from gutting scenes of emotional emptiness.
Stripped of her clothes and dignity time and time again, Witherspoon embraces nudity for dramatic effect (marking the first time since 1998’s Twilight) in the most unsexual of ways, hitting sympathetic notes that highlight Strayed’s rock-bottom. The actress continually appears mentally beaten, physically submissive, and emotionally torn, which only makes each freeing admittance that much more of a euphoric recognition. Strayed is human – wounded and bleeding – which makes it so easy invest in her lively resurgence, tethered heart-to-heart.
Witherspoon’s performance is revelatory, yet it’s also a testament to Jean-Marc Vallée’s gritty style of “do it live!” filmmaking. As seen in Vallée’s other films (most recently Dallas Buyers Club), the director believes that for an actor/actress to embody any character, everything on-screen should be real. Acting shouldn’t be pretend – it should be walking 1,100 miles in someone else’s muddy shoes. Vallée demands that Witherspoon turn into the grimy, odoriferous lost soul marching towards a finish line marking self-assurance, beauty, and glorious wonder.
Vallée and cinematographer, Yves Bélanger, capture gorgeous locations worthy of Strayed’s defining moments, from glistening snowy valleys to sprawling mountainous rock formations, playing off of Witherspoon’s emotional state at the time. At her most lonesome, she’s found camping amidst cacti and deserted sandy paths, yet her town checkpoints inject a bit of flower-power liveliness that reflects the peaceful vibes Strayed grasps at. You can’t title a film Wild and not find the most picturesque locations worth shooting (which hilariously took place mostly in Oregon, not California), which is a preconceived expectancy that Vallée has no trouble meeting.
Laura Dern may not play the part of Cheryl Strayed, yet she might be Wild‘s unsung hero given her accomplishments with what little screen time she gets as Strayed’s mother. A perky, always positive parent bubbling over with love and laughter, once she’s diagnosed with cancer in her mid-forties, Bobbie (Dern) realizes her whole life was spent being everyone but herself. Her positivity never wavers, yet there’s a poignant few lines where Dern confesses that her existence was spent being something else – a wife, a mother, a student – but never what SHE truly wanted.
While this becomes a catalyst for Strayed’s inevitable downfall (never wanting the same fate), it’s a brilliantly tragic examination of life’s promise that there’s absolutely nothing that CAN be guaranteed. Time isn’t a given, noted by the 45-year-old thinking that many years lay ahead for personal discovery, and we can either be paralyzed by such a grim fate, or we can turn that fear into a motivational engine powering a life full of grandeur – however many more days that may be. While that might sound f@cking dark, I’ll be damned if Dern isn’t shooting beams of sunshine until her character’s passing.
Wild might seem trivial to some, but that’s all based on your relationship to the material. Personally, I found Witherspoon’s closing monologue to be uplifting, motivational, and warmly inviting in every sense, thinking back on the days and nights that plague my own mind, puzzled by what the hell I could have possibly been thinking (don’t worry Mom, no heroin or equal debauchery from me).
Humans aren’t perfect – despite what some egos believe – and there are ways to mask our imperfections, yet those vices can quickly spin out of control into a chaotic whirlwind when left unchecked. You have two choices when you look back and think “where the Hell is the person I used to be,” one depressing, one rejuvenating. Wild gives you every reason to start over again, reassuring audiences that sins may not be forgotten, but they can be forgiven, thanks to a breathtaking transformation by Reese Witherspoon. Like I said, the best movies take you on a memorable journey, and my feet certainly ache from each mile of Strayed’s exhausting, illuminating path.
Thanks to a showstopping performance by Reese Witherspoon, Wild takes audiences on a beautiful journey full of strength, independence, and the reassurance that no matter how dark life may get, there's a glowing light if you're willing to reach for it.