Written by Marisa Carpico
Wild Plot Summary
Based on the memoir of the same name, Wild tells the story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who sets off alone on the Pacific Crest Trail planning to hike from the Mojave Desert to Oregon. Along the way, she reflects on the events of her life that compelled her to make the journey, from the infidelity and drug use that ended her marriage to–most importantly–the trauma of her mother’s death from cancer.
Wild is a fascinating read. Strayed’s journey, both physical and emotional, meanders from one subject to the next. One moment she focuses on the cheating that ended her marriage, the next on her constant hunger during her trek. At least half the action takes place in flashbacks as Strayed spends the often-solitary miles reflecting on her past. It’s a difficult story to adapt to film and could easily feel boring or un-cinematic in the hands of an uncreative director. Thankfully, director Jean-Marc Vallée has turned the story into a lyrical, impressionistic movie about grief and self-discovery.
While Vallée mostly avoids the temptation to use voice-over to drive the film, the few places he does use it are surprising and incredibly effective. During her trek, Strayed frequently refers to the random stream of songs she uses to fill the silence as “the mix-tape radio station in [her] head.” Instead of simply playing each song under images of Witherspoon walking, Vallée often has her hum or sing them in voice-over, sometimes with choice lines sung aloud. He’s similarly creative when it comes to more complex character moments. After her mother’s death and a during the height of her drug addiction, Cheryl visits a cheap therapist and conversation quickly turns to her father. However, instead of having her relate that history verbally as she does in the book and as most films would, Vallée chooses a far more effective method by letting her memories of her abusive father force themselves into her mind and onto the screen as she storms out of the room.
Vallée’s talents aren’t just visual either. As he showed with last year’s The Dallas Buyers Club, he also has a gift for pulling great performances out of his actors. While Laura Dern’s sympathetic, heart-breaking performance as Cheryl’s mother is truly beautiful (and deserving of awards buzz), the real stand out here is Witherspoon. There’s something oddly fascinating about watching an actress who spent a good deal of her career being America’s Sweetheart play a heroin-addicted almost nyphomaniacal woman.
Seeing this young, beautiful woman alone in the wilderness conjures up fears of all kinds, especially of sexual assault. Yet other than one truly disturbing incident with two men out hunting–played with a sort of primal, frightened animal fear by Witherspoon–Strayed receives only kindness and charity from the people she meets. The enormous backpack she carries, dubbed “Monster,” dwarfs Witherspoon and it gives Strayed the air of someone who could use a little help. So, it’s no surprise when people, especially men, do. Of course a sexy guy passing out concert flyers puts Cheryl’s name on the list. Of course a ranger reopens his office so she can pick up a supply package. Who wouldn’t want to help this nice, tough, little blonde?
Though, that’s not to minimize Witherspoon’s work. Her Cheryl is raw and damaged and not always sympathetic, but she is real and complex in a way Witherspoon has maybe never had the chance to make a character—not even in her Oscar-winning turn in Walk the Line. She has a strong chance of winning another for this role, though she faces some strong competition from Julianne Moore in Still Alice and Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl (a movie produced, like this one, by Witherspoon). Truthfully, everyone involved with the production has a good chance and any wins would be well-deserved. Wild may just be the best movie of the year.