Wild is ripe for easy snark on the page. Just as Cheryl Strayed embarked on her thousand mile sojourn to emotional betterment in 1995, Reese Witherspoon sets out to recreate Strayed’s quest in the pursuit of another Oscar win, what would be her first since 2005’s Walk the Line. It has long been the fashion among movie stars to deglam in the campaign for Academy gold, and approaching Strayed’s story in partnership with Jean-Marc Vallée—the director of 2013’s supremely baity Dallas Buyers Club—sends a clear signal as to the film’s ultimate ambition.
But there’s Oscar bait and then there’s Oscar bait, and for all of its awards-season intentions, Wild happens to be genuine, not to mention good. Strayed has led a hell of a life, and lest we forget that Witherspoon is a real actress, portraying Strayed for the screen seems as much of an honor as it is a challenge. What leading lady wouldn’t want the opportunity to step into Strayed’s boots? (In an alternate universe, one could easily see Taylor Schilling, a younger clone of Witherspoon, diving into the same role with equal gusto.)
After opening in medias res, the film takes us to the start of Strayed’s hike along the Pacific Crest Trail—from the Mojave Desert all the way to Washington State. Strayed hopes for a personal breakthrough on her odyssey; as shown in flashbacks, the death of her mother (Laura Dern) years prior put her on a downward spiral fueled by heroin and infidelity that culminated in divorce from her husband (Thomas Sadoski). It is Strayed’s belief that the multistate trek, despite her lack of any formal hiking experience, will foster catharsis—but as anyone would expect, the PCT turns out to be a Herculean undertaking for which she’s ill-prepared. Day in and day out, she must contend with rattlesnakes, bad weather, worse food, haunting memories and, on occasion, the kind of danger that only comes from human interaction.
Wild begins with a disgusting toenail incident that establishes how far Strayed is out of her depth. Over time, she acclimates to the rigors of backpacking and learns to ignore the voice in her head that’s begging her to quit. These are merely bookends to the film, though—the destination is less important than the journey. On her way, Strayed meets strangers (some helpful, some less so) while working through her guilt, shame and grief at the hurt she has caused and the losses she has incurred. At times, Vallée transitions between past and present seamlessly. At others, his edits feel overwrought. Wild is a simple movie that demands a simple touch; histrionic cutting does not suit the narrative. But Vallée shows enough awareness to keep the film anchored. The settings and Strayed’s quest are often permitted to speak for themselves, and when they do, Wild is startlingly beautiful. (It helps that production didn’t cut corners with location.)
As with Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée, aided in this adaptation by screenwriter Nick Hornby, probes the degradation of the flesh and the salvation of the spirit. Wild is a redemption song, not only Strayed’s but Witherspoon’s—the film is pretty much all Reese, all the time, and she is remarkable, capitalizing on the full attention of Vallée’s camera. Witherspoon mines Strayed for complexity and nuance with enormous success, and in the process crafts a robust portrait of modern femininity. Strayed isn’t remorseless—in fact, she’s dogged by regret—but she also makes no apologies or excuses for herself, and she refuses to let others peg her by category. This is a woman of great self-possession, a lover of literature who quotes as easily from Dickinson as from Frost as from O’Connor, and Witherspoon cuts a figure of awesome grace through her travails.
If Wild picks up any accolades in the year-end frenzy of listification—and it stands a decent chance of doing so—it’ll be worthier of the praise than Dallas Buyers Club, a movie that was too insistent on its own importance by far. By contrast, Wild is an earnest, humble production, made no less handsomely but far more palatable by virtue of its quietude. The wilderness is vast and full of perils, but it’s a proving ground for lost souls to find healing—or in Witherspoon’s case, new direction.
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer: Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffman
Release Date: Dec. 5, 2014
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has written about film for the web since 2009, and has contributed to Paste since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine. You can follow him on Twitter. Currently, he has given up on shaving.