With Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, W. Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffman. Written by Nick Hornby. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language. 115 mins.
Speaking as someone who had to be physically restrained to keep from scratching my own eyeballs out during “Eat Pray Love,” expectations were not exactly through the roof for WILD–another adaptation of an Oprah Book-Of-The-Month Club Selection about a woman’s exotic journey towards self-actualization while surrounded by pretty scenery.
But the best thing about this job is that sometimes movies sneak up on you, and I am surprised and delighted to report that “Wild” is a much tougher, trickier film than is currently being advertised. It earns its emotional payoffs honestly, always underplaying where lesser movies would’ve lunged for Oscar Gold. Best of all, unlike that superficially similar Julia Roberts vehicle we will never mention again, this one doesn’t geegaw at other cultures while providing a hunky man to make everything right at the end of the rainbow.
“Wild” is one woman’s story in which the ultimate reward is found inside herself, such a rarity in contemporary Hollywood that I left the cinema feeling like I’d just glimpsed a unicorn.
Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the picture, stars as Cheryl Strayed–a hot mess of a twenty-something still reeling from her stalwart single mom’s swift and sudden death from lung cancer at the way-too-young age of forty-five. A master of self-sabotage, grieving Cheryl torpedoes her marriage and every other good break she gets with a binge of wanton drug abuse and anonymous sex partners, deliberately squandering all the advantages her mother never had. “I don’t know when I became such a piece of shit,” she confides to a friend.
So, with precious little preparation and no training whatsoever, Cheryl abruptly decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail–walking 1,100 miles alone from the Mojave Desert all the way up to Washington for reasons she can’t quite explain. It could be her purgation and a penance, or it could be just another reckless, self-destructive cry for help by someone who seems to specialize in such stunts. “Wild” works as well as it does because the movie understands it’s probably a little bit of both.
We begin in the middle of the story, with Witherspoon kicking off her one-size-too-small hiking boots, surveying a podiatrist’s nightmare of toenail damage and bellowing obscenities into a crevasse. “Dallas Buyers Club” director Jean-Marc Vallée free-associates from there, with a screenplay by the fine novelist Nick Hornby sketching in essential information via quicksilver, elliptical flashbacks.
“Wild” is a movie about the voices rattling around inside in your head when you’re all alone. It jumps back and forth in time bringing up every embarrassing moment you’d rather not remember and then grinds them all out in a physically punishing present-tense context. It’s only out here, in the middle of nowhere, away from all the sex, drugs and rock n’ roll that Cheryl finally figures out who she was, and who she is.
Despite being way too old for the part, Witherspoon is phenomenal. It’s been a rough decade of sorry rom-coms and errata ever since she won a well-deserved Oscar for playing June Carter Cash in “Walk The Line,” and for a while, I was worried Reese had calcified into a Kewpie doll. But she rips into this role without a single concern for being liked by the audience, casually owning her character’s often terrible mistakes and leading with that indomitable, forty-five degree chin.
She’s also a born physical comedienne, wrestling with a backpack twice her size in bits that would make Charlie Chaplin proud. Given her part in producing “Gone Girl” and a killer supporting role in the upcoming “Inherent Vice,” I would say we’re indeed very much in the midst of what folks on the Internet are already calling “The Reese-urgence.”
Nick Hornby’s contribution comes through in a very smart understanding about the ways people tend to use pop music and literature to define themselves in a vacuum. “Wild” has some brilliant music editing, with songs bubbling up in Sheryl’s subconscious at half-volume on the trail, muffled as if reverberating through the basement floor like a tune you can’t get out of your head. And in a movie awash in Strayed’s self-consciously pretentious literary quotations, there’s a running James Michener gag that made me roar.
What else can be said about Laura Dern, filling in the flashbacks as Cheryl’s departed mother, radiating a complex kindness we seldom see on movie screens? Bruised and beatific, she’s always making the best of a bum lot and positively incandescent about it. The subjective nature of Strayed’s story and Vallée’s fragmented approach should rightfully make Mom come off as too good to be true. Kudos to this team for hiring an actress who actually fits that particular bill.
I’ve chugged a lot of end-of-the-year Oscar bait pictures over these past few weeks, but “Wild” stayed with me more than most. It’s a real grower, never diving for showcase moments and always creeping up on you from unexpected directions. I liked it a lot.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.