Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.
2014. Rated R, 115 minutes.
W. Earl Brown
Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) has decided to hike the one hundred plus mile Pacific Crest Trail all by her lonesome. She fills up her backpack with way too much stuff and off she goes. During the trip she does lots of thinking. Through her numerous flashbacks we discover she has a history of drug abuse, adultery, and misses her mom badly. In the present, she occasionally runs into other people, some of whom seem to be pretty shady. This is based on the memoirs of the real Cheryl Strayed.
The best thing about Wild is the two Academy Award nominated performances by Reese Witherspoon in the lead and Laura Dern as her mom, Bobbi. Witherspoon does her best work since her also-nominated turn in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Here, she manages to give an excellent portrayal of a woman struggling with her own existence. Dern just lights up the screen whenever she appears. Her natural charm fills every frame in which she's visible. From a visual standpoint, there is a bit of a problem. The two women appear too close in age. According to their Wikipedia pages they are, with only nine years between them. Luckily, they have enough chemistry to effectively hurdle that obstacle.
The other strength of the film is its look. Nature appears to do much of the work by being a willing and flawless model. However, cinematographer Yves Bélanger does a great job framing it for us. Flashbacks too her time with men and drugs are often stitched together using quick cuts resulting in small snippets of decadence mixed into our heroine's trek. Flashbacks to her mom utilize longer shots indicating times she remembers fondly and wants to hold onto. It all works together in service of the main character.
As much praise as I've heaped on Wild thus far, it's actually a film of which I'm not too fond. Almost right from the beginning I felt like I was watching a remake of another movie I didn't like, 2007's Into the Wild. The similarities start with the title and runs all through the DNA of both productions. Into the Wild gives us a reflective, but aimless person running from their problems using a method of running in which he has no experience. It's littered with flashback and oddball characters met along the way. At semi-regular intervals we get poetry in voice-over. Despite never actually dealing with any of the issues he's running from, and making some mighty dumb choices as he goes, it's framed as a triumphant journey. Wild is virtually a carbon copy, save for the fate of our protagonist. Every one of those things I mentioned about Into the Wild is present, here. Wild is even more egregious in its framing because in the course of building our heroine's hike, and even her backpack, as a metaphor for her life, the film credits it with her redemption instead of using it as a catalyst for the real work which must sure have followed it.
I may have given too much away right there, but I couldn't think of another way to get my point across. I suppose I could've said the movie oversimplifies things. That wouldn't be sufficient. I could also just blast it for affirming the idea that running from your problems is a viable solution. Before the film reaches its conclusion, the audience is set up for this by the one time Cheryl faces a legitimate physical threat. Like everything else, she simply outruns it. In the moment it is perfectly acceptable for her to do such a thing. In fact, it is precisely what she should do. However, in the larger context of the movie as a whole, it's part of a troublesome trend.
Wild is a movie that rides its strengths to make itself watchable. Wonderful acting and often gorgeous scenery keep us engaged. The building of Cheryl's backstory is also a major plus. It creates empathy in the viewer. This empathy is a big reason for us to stay with the film. Unfortunately, things unravel as we proceed. Taken on a purely surface level, it works okay. However, it clearly pushes the hike as a metaphor angle. The problem with this is that the assertions it makes within this framework crumbles beneath the slightest scrutiny.