“Wild” Movie Review

     In what is, perhaps, the finest performance of Reese Witherspoon’s career thus far, director Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Wild” brings to life the agonizing true story of Cheryl Strayed whose best selling memoir chronicled her 1100 mile solo hike of the famed Pacific Crest Trail.  Vallee directed Matthew McConaughey to his first Oscar in last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club” and it seems likely he may repeat that feat as Witherspoon’s performance is one of the best of the year.  Nick Hornby’s adaptation is high on character pontification in which they consistently share their thoughts about life with lines that may have appeared at some point on a bumper sticker.  “There aren’t no forks in my road” one character quips and these types of exchanges become commonplace as the story develops and Cheryl travels deeper into her both physical and psychological journey.  As the story gains momentum; however, the narrative supplies plenty of worthy dramatic moments in which Cheryl must overcome numerous emotional hurdles in order to succeed through the treacherous landscape she has chosen as a way to put the past behind her and begin a new life.

     Vallee, just as he did with “Dallas Buyers Club”, has established a style in which his characters are presented in the now and given the task at hand, with what got them there in the first place shown as a flashback.  As a novice hiker, we first meet Cheryl Strayed in a motel room near the beginning of the Pacific Crest Trail trailhead as she prepares her equipment for this enormous feat.  Humorous scenes in which Witherspoon’s small stature is no match for the massive backpack and its contents provide a lighthearted moment, but we soon find out her character’s life has been a roller coaster of tragedy and loss for quite some time.  The fact she has decided to embark on this hike is presented as somewhat of a coincidence as we see her walking by a bookstand and a guide about the Pacific Crest Trail catches her eye.  People always talk about finding themselves and no doubt this kind of undertaking alone would provide ample time to think things through, but as Cheryl’s backstory begins to take shape, we realize just how lost she had become.

     An early scene shows Cheryl with her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), as they sign divorce papers.  Seconds later, the audience is likely asking themselves “why?”.  Neither of them seem to want this and its clear Paul’s actions tell us he still deeply cares for her.  And yet, something is definitely wrong between them.  Something you have a feeling Vallee will divulge later.  Flashbacks taking place even earlier tell us Cheryl has a very close relationship with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who herself survived a brutal relationship with Cheryl’s father as she found herself a frequent victim of physical abuse.  Though they seem to just get by with both Bobbi and Cheryl working as waitresses and Cheryl’s brother, Leif (Keene McRae), meandering in his late teens, Bobbi always projects a happy and cheerful disposition that is often called into question by Cheryl, but also seems to keep her positive. 

     When tragedy strikes, Cheryl finds herself unable to cope and turns to a number of strange mechanisms she leans on in order to get through the day.  She cheats on Paul countless times with numerous men, while also becoming a heroine addict as she spirals dangerously out of control.  Perhaps the divorce was the trigger, but as we take this journey with Cheryl, we realize she had to make a change to avoid her own fate.  Certainly the trek she has chosen to complete has its challenges as well and Vallee uses the hiking scenes as a sort of framework for each of the film’s three acts, tying in many of her worst moments of the past with triumphs of the present.  Overall, the direction is solid and has a definite indy film sheen to it as Vallee prefers to present this type of material, particularly the flashback sequences, with a sort of realism that leaves you feeling dirty and unsettled after.

     During the course of the hike, Cheryl meets all sorts of people.  In some cases, she’s asking for much needed help and aid, and in others she merely needs someone to talk to.  In doing so, she sees the best of people, most notably a character named Frank (W. Earl Brown) who she misjudges at first, and the worst of people, especially a pair of losers lost in the woods after a hunting trip gone awry.  She also learns a lot about her self and what she is capable of both accomplishing and overcoming.  She gets help along the way, but it seems she is successful in mentally reversing course and preparing herself for whatever comes her way in the future.  Some may completely buy into this story and come away inspired, while others could simply dismiss the story’s significance and downgrade Cheryl’s experience as something all of us must endure sooner or later.  Either way, there’s no denying the events chronicled in the film make a compelling statement about the sometimes difficult hand life deals us and the steps we have to take in order to move on with some level of sanity.  GRADE: B+