I admit to approaching Wild with a not-insignificant amount of hesitation. My faith in Reese Witherspoon has been fading for the past several years, and not even a Nick Hornby-penned screenplay could make me watch another Rich White Person’s Journey film, because I’ve had enough of those to last a decade. Happily, that was not at all what Wild is, it’s a rugged film with a strong central performance and an actual sense of self.
Wild tells the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides mostly on a whim to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the mountains of Oregon in an attempt to separate herself from her previous years of self-destructive behavior following the death of her mother (Laura Dern). The audience follows Cheryl from her first day on the trail to her last, slipping into a series of carefully edited micro-flashbacks as things or people she encounters remind her of parts of her past. It’s a smart and effective technique that evokes the actual experience of being alone with one’s thoughts. At first, Cheryl’s memories only flicker on-screen for a second or two, almost subliminal, but as she spends more time on the trail by herself, they grow longer and longer. (Director Jean-Marc Valle used a similar technique in parts of Dallas Buyer’s Club). We’re seeing these memories for the first time as an audience, and Cheryl is experiencing them in her head all the way through continuously for the first time.
Witherspoon’s performance is subtle and understated, because she rarely gets the opportunity to do an Oscar Moment, wherein the lead character gets passionately angry or delivers a powerful speech. These kinds of moments require long-term interaction with other characters, and most of Cheryl’s story is spent alone. Even when she allows herself to cry, it’s softly to herself, and Valle is smart enough to keep this to a few seconds. Instead, Witherspoon has to play the constant balance between irritation, desperation, determination, and self-loathing. It’s an internalized performance, and although Witherspoon doesn’t wear it on her sleeve, she sure as hell wears it on her face.
A great example of this occurs early on when Cheryl runs out of food and has to reach out to a farmer she passes for assistance. As she waits in his truck, it occurs to her that the desperation of her situation has caused her to enter the vehicle of a large man she doesn’t know, and Witherspoon allows that realization to slowly wash over her face. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that Cheryl has to be cautious of every man she meets at first approach. Although only one appears to pose an actual threat, there’s also a sense of belittlement or obligation from some of the men she encounters.In one scene, a park ranger only agrees to retrieve a package for her on the condition she have drinks with him. Later, she is teased by her male companions for how easily people do things for her as a woman. It’s interesting and highly telling that the film treats the constant threat of rape or assault as just one of the things that Cheryl has to deal with, like rattlesnakes or blisters. It’s a fact of her situation and position in life.
There are a handful of complaints about the film, but they are minor quibbles. Because the film is so internalized, it feels like a missed opportunity how seldom the cinematography interacts with the natural beauty of its settings. Out of the entire trail, only a shot of Crater Lake sticks out as being particularly memorable, and that may just be a personal experience of mine as an Oregonian. Also, at one baffling point, the movie just stops and becomes a literal advertisement for REI’s surprisingly liberal boot return policy. None of this changes how good Wild is for being a true “independent film”, meaning a film about the claiming of one’s independence. An introspective movie about reclaiming one’s agency is a bold move to make, and with Valle’s creativity backing her up, Witherspoon carries the film as if it were Cheryl’s ridiculously oversized backpack.
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