By all accounts, I shouldn’t be a fan of the Jean-Marc Vallee adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. It features a lot of narration, visions of deceased relatives and a spirit animal. That’s why we go to the movies though; it’s all in the execution.
Last year, Vallee made the award-winning Dallas Buyers Club, a perfectly fine film, if one that fell short of greatness by a decent margin. It was superbly acted, not superbly told. Wild continues the former and flips the latter into the positive as it tells the true story of Strayed’s trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. The thousand or so mile trip is interspersed with flashbacks to what led this non-hiker to make the move of dedicating three months of her life to wandering the wilderness alone. We see flashes of her mother, ex-husband and a series of poor decisions (adultery, heroin) that led Strayed to rock bottom.
Reese Witherspoon plays Strayed with an earthy, humble spirit. As we watch Witherspoon’s Strayed move from insecure to competent to almost leadership status, every beat is authentic. When there is the joy of cooking a meal over gas for the first time, we rejoice. As her character confronts a string of men, from kind to threatening, with everything in between, Witherspoon sells the emotional vibe.
Helping matters in no small part is the screenplay by veteran novelist Nick Hornby. The dialogue is sharp without being writerly. The structure is probably the key though, allowing one regular glimpses into the dramatic highs and lows of Strayed life before her journey. Like life, it isn’t just one breaking point, rather a gradual fracking of a person’s psyche and relationships. The two key figures in Strayed’s life are terrific, with Laura Dern as the optimistic if damaged mother and Thomas Sadoski as the sympathetic, if not quite willing to forgive, ex. Vallee is a generous director to acting talent, letting his camera sit still on a face and never asking his players to go for the throat just because the scene could allow it. This especially comes in handy when establishing the mood for every encounter Strayed has with a man. This is a very feminist feature, hinting at the expectations men have about women like Strayed and the hard truths that comes with being a female surrounded by males. There are kindnesses along the way , as well as terrors only women will sadly ever encounter.
There is a misnomer that since Wild is most prominently only receiving awards acclaim for Witherspoon that the movie’s a one-trick pony. It isn’t that whatsoever. It is in fact a great film from start to finish.