I wasn't a fan of Jean-Marc Vallée last film, "Dallas Buyers Club," which I found to be a pretty typical social justice drama with some good performances. It was solid filmmaking, but nothing really memorable. So I wasn't expecting much from "Wild," which was billed as an uplifting female-centric drama starring Reese Witherspoon, with a adventurous, woman v. nature bent. I figured I'd get something like "Eat, Pray, Love" in hiking boots. "Wild" is definitely not that.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a troubled young woman who sets out on an 1,100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail through desert and mountain terrains, despite little previous experience. On her way, she sorts through her eventful life in flashback, and in particular the recent traumas and mistakes that left her in search of spiritual renewal in the wilderness. We follow Cheryl through the arduous trek, both physically and mentally, that brings her into contact with many different dangers on the trail, and daunting emotional pitfalls while confronting her past. Thomas Sadoski plays Cheryl's ex-husband Paul and Laura Dern plays her mother, Bobbi.
The immediate comparison that comes to mind when looking at "Wild" is Danny Boyd's survival film "127 Hours," which also employs a lot of flashbacks to provide a window into the mental state of a protagonist doing solitary battle with nature. "Wild" spends much more time outside its subject's head since Cheryl has much more literal ground to cover, but it does a great job of finding a similar balance between her internal and external struggles, and weaving them together in interesting ways. There are some great sequences here that are effective largely due to strong editing choices and careful scene construction. I happily hand the bulk of the credit for them to Vallée, who is credited as the film's editor as well as it's director.
Reese Witherspoon certainly deserves her kudos too. "Wild" was conceived as a vehicle for her talents, and though she initially doesn't seem to be a good fit for the role, she pulls it off. Her Cheryl Strayed could have easily been a far weaker, more stereotypical heroine, and her redemption arc played up in a more obvious way. Instead, between Witherspoon and Vallée, we get a considered, thorough exploration of a complicated woman. The narrative is very personal and intimate, delving into Strayed's childhood memories, her most painful and vulnerable moments, and quiet personal triumphs. It doesn't sugarcoat anything and lets Cheryl be pretentious, faithless, selfish, and foolish when she needs to be. Witherspoon isn't afraid of being unlikeable, which is key. One scene that stuck with me was a flashback to a conversation between Cheryl and Bobbi where Cheryl makes some thoughtless comments that are clearly hurtful to her mother in hindsight, and Cheryl's guilt still lingers in the present.
I expect those viewers more interested in the wilderness adventure aspect of the film might be a little disappointed. There are some lovely beauty shots of the Pacific Northwest, but the focus of the film isn't the day-to-day business of the hike itself, but the people Cheryl meets and the situations she gets into because of the hike. Once she gets through her initial difficulties with equipment and footwear, the time on the trail takes a backseat to the character study. The depictions of the hiking culture ring true, though, and wilderness trail enthusiasts get their moment in the spotlight. Also, there's a pointed emphasis on the particular hurdles Cheryl faces because she's a woman hiking the trail alone.
Watching "Wild" didn't make me feel particularly inclined to put on a pair of boots, but it did help me appreciate why other people do. There have been several of these self-discovery in the wilderness movies over the past few years, including "Tracks," "Into the Wild," and "The Grey." "Wild" is one of the better ones because the execution is so strong and Cheryl Strayed proves to be a main character worth following on her journey. I'm glad I put aside my doubts and watched this, because it really exceeded my expectations. And Jean-Marc Vallée can now count me as a fan.