“Wild”, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in the early nineties in an attempt to get her life back under control. Along the way she deals with multiple issues plaguing her, including the death of her mother, played in flashbacks by Laura Dern.
To say that Cheryl Strayed had fallen on hard times before the hike that makes up most of this time would probably be an understatement. After her mother dies, she begins a downward spiral towards heroin addiction and meaningless sex with everyone who asks. At last, she is shocked out of her self-induced anaesthesia by the divorce from her husband and an unwanted pregnancy. On a whim, she decides to walk herself back to the woman she once was. So she picks up a book about the PCT and starts out on her journey back to self-respect.
What makes her so interesting is that underneath all the drugs, numbness and grief, she is a very smart woman. She is well-versed in poetry and when the divorce papers are filled out, she gives herself a new last name, “Strayed”, which seems like a very self-aware form of punishment.
All this has to be the basis for Reese Witherspoon’s performance, but she actually takes it even further. She goes to all the dark places that her back-story needs her to go, shown in flashbacks, which I’ll get to later. She also does all her own walking, which is a lot, even though through the magic of movie-making, it’s probably not quite the original 1,100 mile trek. It’s an incredibly physical performance and we can see it in every facet of Witherspoon’s performance. At the beginning of the journey, we meet a woman who is as down as you can get. A motel-clerk takes her for a drugged-up hooker and she’s not that far off. But soon the tired face of a drug addict is replaced by the tired face of a woman who goes to her limits, thinks about quitting and then pushes on.
Reese Witherspoon has won an Oscar for her role in “Walk the Line”. Her performance in that movie was great, but this is better. That becomes clear from the first scene, which wipes away the image of the All-American darling Reese Witherspoon. I don’t want to spoil anything, but when that scene comes around again, it’s even more haunting.
Laura Dern gives another strong performance, although I would have thought that she would get her Oscar nomination for her role in “The Fault in Our Stars”, which is similar but with more depth than this one.
Jean-Marc Vallée follows up his success from last year, “Dallas Buyers Club”, with a movie that is quite different. Where “Dallas Buyers Club” was a conventionally structured film with a few contemplative moments thrown in, this is all-contemplation. The idea of most biopics is to give the audience a way into the head of the subject and “Wild” is a masterpiece in that aspect. Flashbacks are often sequenced into films, mostly to provide necessary information, as one block. The flashbacks in “Wild” are less exposition, more stylistic device. The reason for Cheryl’s trip is never much of a mystery and is not treated as such. Instead, the flashbacks are shot and organised in a way that basically lets us read Cheryl’s mind. She has a lot of things to work through and we get to see that process in a very organic way. For example her inner monologue would list things that she misses about the civilized world, like good food, friends and the Minnesotan snow (the last one maybe not so much). The next thing we see is a short clip of her in a restaurant with a friend. Then we see her hike on, but the memory has surfaced and then gets expanded upon, showing us an integral scene of the past. It works like a charm, we always get to see what triggers the memory that follows. The film is episodic in that way, but at the same time, all these things are on her mind at all times, illustrated by the way short flashback moments are intercut with each other. The flashbacks are also not limited to complete scenes, sound bites and music are used to similar effect.
I could write so much more about this film, it impressed me on all levels. It manages to take the audience on a journey and doesn’t fall into clichéd territory. No easy third-act redemption to be found here. It’s also very funny in some places. It’s an impressive film and the greatest performance of Witherspoon’s career.