"Wild" opens high atop the Pacific Crest Trail, where at first all the eye can see is the sweeping beauty of a rugged land, unmarred and untamed. The scene is breathtaking, serene, until it is broken by pain and pierced by a scream.
The pain comes from Cheryl Strayed, portrayed by a wonderfully worn down and unwashed
It is in moments like these that director Jean-Marc Vallée's compassion for the human condition,
The film unfolds in 1995 at a time when the 26-year-old Strayed has hit rock bottom. Her mother has died, her marriage has too, and if she doesn't stop the destructive behavior, she will join them. A guide to hiking the Pacific Crest Trail catches her eye, and she soon becomes convinced it holds her redemption. Alone on the trail she can reclaim her life, find her true self.
Strayed unflinchingly recounts the journey in her inspiring bestseller and also gives Witherspoon the role she has needed for a while. In Cheryl, the actress once again has someone of complexity and emotional heft, but of a very different sort than her Oscar-winning performance as persevering June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line."
Both filmmaker and star prove agile in walking both sides of the line in "Wild," mining the physical journey itself with the kind of exhausting physical extremes a hike like this presents, and the emotional layers that underpin it. They take full advantage of one of the central appeals of Strayed's story — that whatever rough patches the Pacific Crest might hold, her blend of moxie and off-handed telling make the hike seem almost doable, putting her empowerment experience within reach.
Throughout there is ever the reminder that the trail requires the kind of grit needed to survive with whatever you can carry on your back. In this case, it is a towering pack that fellow trekkers dub "the monster." Shouldering that heavy load, which looks to outweigh Witherspoon, is one of the lighter, ironic reprieves seeded through the film.
These moments temper the flashbacks, tracing Cheryl's years of bad circumstances and bad choices: Growing up in rural poverty. Escaping the violent drunk of a stepfather. Her mother (an excellent
The angst and anxiety emerge in bits and pieces, the flashbacks sparked by the kind of introspection you would expect along the trail.
It is a kind of hard-edged character that Witherspoon has been working her way toward in recent years in films such as
Taking this risk was a calculated one — the actress optioned the book before publication — suggesting there is a more interesting career still in the making.
Vallée, along with an excellent crew that includes director of photography Yves Belanger, who last worked with the director on the Oscar-winning
Though Cheryl is the spine and Witherspoon very much earns her space as the star, there are many fine characters and performances woven in along the way. The one that casts the longest shadow is Dern as Cheryl's mother, Bobbi, a portrait of strength and vulnerability that is earning the actress well-deserved awards attention. Sadoski is rock-solid as Cheryl's still-caring ex.
But many of the best scenes come from Cheryl's encounters with strangers. An interlude with Michiel Huisman, as Jonathan, a late-in-the-journey romance, exposes the chafing and the healing that has taken place. Impossible to forget is Frank (
You can sense Vallée's evolution as a filmmaker in scenes like that. In "Wild," he makes more room for subtlety, helped by Hornby's gift with dialogue (Oscar-nominated for