I’ve been a fan of director Jean-Marc Vallée ever since his work on the coming-of-age film C.R.A.Z.Y. and loved the aesthetic of The Young Victoria, although his bigger breakthrough with Dallas Buyers Club didn’t wow me as much as most critics. So I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the critically lauded Wild, even if the journey motif signaled he was getting back to the type of film he does best.
And there was plenty of good stuff in the Reese Witherspoon-led (and carried) story about a woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail to try and get her life back on track after her mother’s death. Based on a memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Vallée adopts the back and forth of her storytelling—the hike vs. the moments that led to it—with his gift for transitions. He slides easily between Strayed’s near-silent journey on the Trail, to flashbacks, linking them together with Witherspoon’s calm, deadpan delivery of her character’s thoughts.
Some encounters on the road are less meditative, and Wild spends a lot of time acknowledging the rarity of female hikers along such a massive trail, and some of the reasons why that may be that have nothing to do with physical strength. But on the other hand, considering Strayed decided to go on the trip to break free of a cycle of heroine use and random sexual encounters, at least part of the threat comes from her fear of herself and whether she can actually change how she’s living. Either way, there’s a pervasive tension whenever Cheryl encounters someone along the trail and it’s a relief to see her trudging the path alone again—however brutal that may be.
It’s not all deftly handled though. A poorly exicuted CGI spirit animal makes for an extra layer of the journey that wasn’t necessary. Also after walking with Strayed for so long, her journey comes to an abrupt end, suddenly finding resolution and closure in time for the final marker even if her thoughts up to that point haven’t revealed any sense of moving forward. But these are a weak couple of minutes that while not ending things on the highest note possible, don’t necessarily undermine how impressive the grueling journey had been up to then.
Laura Dern also stars as Cheryl’s struggling mother who died before the two had a real opportunity to move from parent and child to friends. The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski takes a break from being the weekly dose of asshole as Cheryl’s strangely supportive ex-husband and Gaby Hoffman makes a brief appearance as the friend helplessly watching Strayed’s downfall. But ultimately this is Witherspoon’s film, and not just because she’s the one who first got the rights to the book or committed herself so impressively to the role. We live primarily in Cheryl’s head and see the others through her, which keeps them from being as well rounded as I might have liked, but that intensely focused perspective is also the movie’s biggest strength.