Wild Review

(3.5 STARS)

One of the most successful prestige films of 2013 was Jean-Marc Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, a mostly artless attempt to prove that white guys have feelings too. It was well-acted, though, and ultimately won three Oscars, but my frustrations with the film, its screenplay, and its non-descript direction all led to major trepidation on my part for Vallée’s follow-up, Wild, a.k.a. “The One Where Reese Witherspoon Goes Hiking and Learns Some Life Lessons.”

Well, shame on me because this is a pretty fantastic movie. (Maybe Dallas Buyers Club is just a blip on Vallée’s filmography.) Reese Witherspoon gives an exceptional performance as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who hiked over 2,500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in order to regain control of her life after tragedy and drug addiction derailed her. It’s a tough-nosed, full-bodied performance that’s not as superficial and baity as one might expect.

More notable, however, is Vallée. Working with a dynamite Nick Hornby screenplay (that’s adapted from Strayed’s memoir), the man lets his film breathe, and as such, he extracts some emotion out of the story and various character arcs but doesn’t bludgeon you to death with it. Wild develops a quiet confidence rarely seen in films like it, which usually scream at you until you relent and cry (*cough* The Theory of Everything *cough*). Yes, they’re mining familiar territory, but Vallée and company seem fine with that as long as they maintain the integrity of Strayed’s story. Mission accomplished.

The film’s chronology is jumbled, but the technique never feels arbitrary. We first meet Strayed (Witherspoon, obviously) as she’s beginning her hike in Mexico. A few days in, she’s almost ready to call it quits, but she’s taken back to a time years ago when her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) teaches her a lesson about being your best self (or something to that effect).

It continues like this for 110 minutes—covering 3 months of hiking and years of Strayed’s pre-PCT life. She’s a regular person with faults and flaws, and no one involved with the film tries to turn her into a superhero of some kind. As such, she’s an easy heroine to relate to, and as played by Witherspoon, we believe everything that transpires.

Laura Dern deserves mention for her sunny portrayal of Bobbi. She doesn’t have much of an arc, nor much to do, but she’s a wonderful facilitator for Witherspoon’s performance. Cheryl becomes who she is because of her mother, which means Dern’s is the definition of a good supporting performance. The same can be said to a lesser degree for Thomas Sadoski (playing Strayed’s ex-husband), Gaby Hoffmann (her best friend), and several other hikers/farmers/rangers she meets along the way. It isn’t a starry supporting cast, but everyone plays his or her role beautifully.

Yves Bélanger’s cinematography is gorgeous. He’s working with some spectacular, sometimes menacing natural wildlife, and like his director, he never overdoes it. Same goes for editor Martin Pensa’s graceful work. Wild won’t work for everyone, I’m sure. While I fell under its spell, some will find it too slow while others will still feel manipulated. No matter. I think there’s a lot more going on here than just Witherspoon’s career-best work, and to that end, Wild will likely place well on my end-of-year top ten.

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