In the opening scene of the Jean-Marc Vallée directed Wild, Cheryl Strayed (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, Walk The Line, Legally Blonde) is perched upon a rock, removing a darkened dead nail from her toe. The grotesque image is quickly replaced by the perpetrating hiking boot accidentally tumbling down the mountainside. Partially frustrated and partially amused, Cheryl takes the other boot and throws it out to join its partner, lost in the forest below.
Wild is just that; an exploration of the deep-seeded effects of tragedy and how one woman chooses extremities to cope and heal. Driven by the loss of her mother Barbara (Laura Dern, Enlightened, The Fault In Our Stars) and subsequent loneliness, divorce from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski, The Newsroom), depression and drug addiction, Strayed seeks clarity and personal redemption by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,500+ mile hiking path through several national parks and mountain ranges on the American west coast in 1994.
The entire tale is detailed in Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Based on the two chapters I’ve read thus far (and the plethora of approving comments from my far-more credible friend who is a Cheryl Strayed fan, Arina, post-screening), screenwriter Nick Hornby (author of About A Boy and screenplay writer behind An Education) appears to have successfully adapted Cheryl’s humorous, occasionally sarcastic but emotionally evocative depiction of her journey into the depths of grief and self-discovery without compromising her voice or story.
The visual and plot devices are fairly surface-level symbolic (see: the depleting size of her backpack over the course of two hours as she becomes the hiker she never was and the person she used to be), but they never underwhelm the notes of feminism, breathtaking landscapes, split storytelling and the beautiful performances that make Wild so deeply satisfying. By honing those elements of the narrative, Vallée, who is coming off of the success of last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, has once again constructed a stage that allows his leads to exemplify their very best efforts and deliver the emotional punch while also transforming Strayed’s story into a multi-dimensional, visual and emotional experience. Vallée’s and editors John Mac McMurphy and Martin Pensa’s combined efforts to layer dual storylines in order to communicate points on reinvention and self-discovery , preventing Wild from feeling too cliché or similar to other human vs. nature stories like Into the Wild and 127 Hours.
Dern and Witherspoon have a wonderful chemistry together. Their mother-daughter relationship drives the underlying emotional arch and source for Cheryl’s eventual descent, but it’s not that they’re just convincing; it’s also heartbreakingly reminiscent for any viewer who has experienced love in such an entrenched, spiritual and dependent manner. When Barbara passes away and Cheryl finds herself completely alone in her grief, the audience immediately feels that absence, to the credit of Dern’s quiet strength in her on-screen presence.
Reese delivers a performance that is just so incredibly human and really is the heartbeat of this feature. Her vulnerability and physicality in this role, a character who faces extreme challenges in both ends of an individual spectrum, is honest and identifiable. It’s a career-high sandwiched between her other comeback efforts, one as an executive producer on Gone Girl and the other, a starring role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, out later this month, though I doubt audiences will find the same sense of serenity and peace that Reese conveys by the end of this film in those works.
I attended a screening of Wild at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Wild is out in theatres now.