Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Cliff De Young, Kevin Rankin, W Earl Brown, Gaby Hoffman, Keene McRae, Brian Van Holt.
Reese Witherspoon does the walk of life as she embarks on a long journey of self-discovery and redemption. Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a troubled woman who sets out to walk along the 1700 km Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico, through the Mojave Desert and to the Canadian Border.
But she is unprepared for the arduous journey and the harsh landscape. When she first sets out her backpack is enormous, crammed with lots of unnecessary items, and her boots are too small. Along the way she meets a variety of people – some offer advice and assistance, but some like a couple of hunters are a bit creepy and they add some tension to the material. And very few of the characters she meets along the way leave much of an impression, apart from W Earl Brown, who play a farmer who gives Cheryl food and a lift.
But overall Wild offers little that we haven’t seen in a number of other films about people looking for redemption and salvation through a long and life changing journey – Wild shares a lot in common with the Sean Penn directed drama Into The Wild, and also The Way, the Emilio Estevez directed film starring Martin Sheen as a grieving father walking the El Camino de Santiago trail in Europe as a pilgrimage in memory of his dead son. And this tale of female empowerment and endurance also shares some similarities with the recent Australian film Tracks, which featured Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson, who set out on an epic journey into the Australian outback accompanied by a couple of camels. And of course there was Julia Roberts seeking self in Eat Pray Love. But unlike some of those other films, there is no great catharsis or emotional healing here, as Wild ultimately aims for something a bit more realistic.
The film is adapted from Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed’s own 2012 autobiographical recount of her life affirming 1995 journey along the west coast of America. The screenplay has been written by Nick Hornby (About A Boy, etc), and his script strips Cheryl’s book back to its essential details and captures her life with unflinching honesty.
There are lots of flashbacks to Cheryl’s troubled past – her relationship with her mother (Laura Dern) who died of cancer, her unhappy marriage and subsequent divorce, abusive relationships with the men in her life, her descent into drugs and casual sexual encounters – and these give the material a hallucinogenic look but also provide a gritty edge and darker undertones. It was those dark moments that lead Cheryl to her decision to turn her life around from its self-destructive spiral: “I’m gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.” But the impressionistec and fragmented nature of these flashbacks also occasionally take us away from the drama of Cheryl’s harrowing and physically demanding journey.
The director is Jean-Marc Vallee, who recently directed Dallas Buyers Club, and elicited Oscar worthy performances from Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. And here he draws a career high performance from Witherspoon, who apparently dropped out of Tim Burton’s Big Eye to do this film. Full of grit and determination, this is easily one of her best performances. She is on screen for most of the time, and her journey is exhausting to watch at times. Witherspoon is good and fearless in a physically demanding role here, and she is deglamorised, eschewing makeup to look rather suitably haggard and drawn. It is a brave, raw and complex and at times introspective performance that has drawn plenty of attention in the awards season.
Dern is given little to do as Cheryl’s mother, although she brings warmth and an ethereal presence to her brief performance. The flashback sequences give us some insights into the dynamic between mother and daughter and their loving relationship, and go some way to explaining why Cheryl fell into a cycle of drugs and self-destructive behaviour.
Music often plays an important part in Vallee’s movies – just check out his early CRAZY, a coming of age tale about a dysfunctional family in which the soundtrack firmly established the era and the mood. Again he features a great soundtrack here, songs from prominent moments in Cheryl’s life that includes the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, Portishead, etc, enhance both the mood of the film and reinforce some of its key themes.
The film has been nicely photographed, and cinematographer Yves Belanger (who also shot Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club) captures some nice vistas of the wide open landscapes, giving the film an almost travelogue like look and feel. The handheld camerawork gives the film a rougher edge too. Despite the surface beauty though, the film itself is a bit of a slog and the pacing is pedestrian at times. Unlike some of those other films dealing with similar material, I didn’t find myself emotionally engaged with Cheryl or her journey.