As befits the title of their new film "Wild," actress Reese Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallee took a raw, untamed approach to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her arduous solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Vallee shot the movie in a stripped-down manner while Witherspoon went makeup-free and slogged along under the load of an oversized pack.
According to movie critics, the result is an artfully crafted, well-acted drama about one woman's physical and emotional trek toward self-acceptance.
The Times' Betsy Sharkey writes, "Though there are occasional stumbles along the 1,100-mile hike, the peaks in 'Wild' make the journey more than worth it." The film is powered by "Vallee's compassion for the human condition, Nick Hornby's skin-scraping and soul-baring adaptation of Strayed's memoir, and Witherspoon's pure emotional nakedness."
Sharkey adds that both Vallee and Witherspoon "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."
The Village Voice's Stephanie Zacharek says that as "effortlessly likable" as Strayed's book is, "the chances of messing up the movie version were great: How do you dramatize a story that essentially consists of walking and thinking — breathtaking scenery notwithstanding?" Fortunately, "Vallee pulls it off."
Zacharek continues, "Both the material and the setting seem to have shaken something loose in Witherspoon." Though the actress is known for her "plucky adorableness," in "Wild," she "kicks any potential cuteness right over the ridge. … For the time being, Witherspoon — sometimes a wonderful actress and sometimes a maddening one — has found herself. Maybe it's the kind of happy accident that comes about only when you don't know you've been lost."
The New York Times' A.O. Scott writes, "What is most audacious about the film … is how closely it follows and how fully it respects Ms. Strayed's free-associative, memory-driven narrative. In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, 'Wild' reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs."
Vallee's film "has its shortcomings," Scott says. "There is too much montage in the middle and too much voice-over at the end, and maybe not quite enough detail about some of Cheryl's relationships. ... But you wouldn't want a movie that celebrates imperfection, improvisation and the importance of mistakes to be slick or seamless."
New York magazine's David Edelstein calls "Wild" a "smart, shapely film." Working from "a deft script" and making use of an "extraordinary" soundtrack, Vallee "weaves Strayed's wrenching memories through shots of her trudging … and trudging … and trudging." As the film intercuts between Strayed's journey and her flashbacks, "The fragmentation is remarkably fluid. The pieces are all of a piece."
Meanwhile, "Witherspoon's edginess makes her easy — and fun — to read; her face registers every bump on the path" and "captures the feeling of Strayed's prose, which can seem a mite self-centered but is always processing."
The [Newark] Star Ledger's Stephen Witty declares "Wild" a "fine film, made with poetry and intelligence." For that, he says, "some credit has to go to Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Nick Hornby. … [T]o their credit, neither man gets in the way of this woman's story."
Witherspoon, meanwhile, "owns this movie in a way she hasn't since 'Walk the Line.' … [T]he real bravery comes from her playing a woman who makes mistakes (and instead of dwelling on them, learns from them). The real nakedness is when she shows us Cheryl's selfishness, impatience, self-destructiveness — all those things that don't necessarily make up a Hollywood heroine but do make up a real person."
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