The 400-Word Review: Wild
By Sean Collier
January 1, 2015
An odd dichotomy exists in Wild, the film adaptation of writer Cheryl Strayed’s hiking memoir. After a string of bad circumstances and self-destructive behavior, Strayed set off on a quest to hike 1,000-plus miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself; Strayed was an amateur hiker, and went into the journey oversupplied but underprepared.
The struggles and periodic terrors that Strayed, played perfectly here by Reese Witherspoon, faces on the trail have a psychological effect that surprised me as a non-hiker. Initially and often thereafter, the demands of the trip are so all-consuming that Strayed has little time to reflect, remember or even think; survival, relative comfort and wayfaring are all she is able to muster the face of fatigue and frequent pain.
It seems, though, that the mental state — on Witherspoon’s face, it looks like a mix of exhaustion, exhilaration and amazement — invoked by this ordeal is what allows the demons of Strayed’s past to emerge and purge themselves. We revisit the sudden and tragic death of her relentlessly positive mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), and the abuse that drove Bobbi away from Strayed’s father. We see the drug- and sex-fueled demise of Strayed’s marriage to nice-enough Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and watch her best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) feebly try to help.
The more worn and weathered Strayed becomes, the more these images arise — and, seemingly, the easier it is for her to process and finally release them. In that way, the movie’s narrative is largely internal; fortunately, it’s handled carefully and cleverly by director Jean-Marc Vallée, who challenges the audience with scenes of endurance on the trail before quietly slipping into flashback. It’s masterful work, better even than the director’s lauded Dallas Buyers Club.
Most vitally, though, Witherspoon gives the best performance of the year (not to mention the best of her career) in casting off every ounce of herself and becoming Strayed. Scenes of rough sex, drug abuse and lifeless misery are not the kind of work that comes to mind with Witherspoon, but Wild not only shows that she can handle difficult roles, she’s actually significantly more suited to them than the pleasant fare that defined the early part of her career. It’s unusual that an actress should announce herself as a major presence nine years after winning an Oscar, but with Wild, Witherspoon has risen to the highest class of modern performers.
My Rating: 9/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark