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Wild - Movie Review

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Wild - Movie Review

5 stars

There’s a wonderful scene in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild that, despite its unassuming throw-away appearance, defines the grace and simplicity of his filmmaking proficiency, while also beautifully illustrating the entangled complexity of one woman’s personal battle with life’s demons.

That woman is Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who embarked on a grueling solo 1,100-mile trek along the west coast’s Pacific Crest Trail. As she stops at one of the many waypoints along her trek, the novice hiker is assisted by a well-seasoned guide who offers advice about everything she’s doing wrong. Together, they rummage through her backpack – affectionately dubbed “the monster” due to its imposing heft – discarding unneeded items that only serve to weigh her down. Deodorant, razors, folding camp saws and the like all get the boot. It’s a literal and figurative unloading of baggage that will be the key to Cheryl’s successful journey; the lightening of  a woman’s burden to be revealed in heartbreaking flashbacks as we watch her month’s-long journey unfold.

The film is adapted from Strayed’s own best-selling memoir titled Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail in which she confronts her past, and contemplates a future without her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) who succumbed to cancer in 1991 at the age of 45. Her mother’s death sent Cheryl into an agony-stricken spiral in which she lost her husband, slept with random strangers, and became addicted to heroin as a means of coping with the grief. Ironically, it is only rock bottom that helps the despondent Cheryl decide that the expected 30-day hike might be her path to redemption.

Wild is a near perfectly-crafted film, made with equal parts poetic elegance from the pen of Nick Hornby and eye-popping cinematography from Yves Bélanger, who brought a similar dreaminess to the much harder-edged Dallas Buyer’s Club. His beautifully photographed views along the Pacific Crest Trail become as much a character as Cheryl and all the strangers she meets along the way. But it’s Vallée who deserves the credit for knowing when to get everyone out of the way and let Witherspoon’s tiny frame tell the story against a backdrop of monumental vistas. Visually, it’s not unlike a classic John Ford western, only with guts and soul that are all modern-day.

Witherspoon plays her Cheryl with a raw vulnerability that’s essential to the film’s success. If she slips along the way, the film falls into a crevasse of irrelevance. It’s that dependent on her performance, and she delivers one of the best of her career.

But not to be outdone is Laura Dern who we meet as Cheryl’s mom via honey-hewed flashbacks. Dern taps into Bobbi’s free spirit with a force that makes us understand why Cheryl feels she’ll never be the same without her mother. One scene is particularly effective as Cheryl becomes annoyed by her mother’s singing and dancing around the kitchen. “Why are you so happy? We have nothing. What part of it do you not get,” she asks her mother. Bobbi responds, her cheerful smile giving way to a determined scowl, “there’s nothing I don’t get, believe me. But then what? If there’s one thing I could teach you it’s how to find your best self. And when you do, hold onto it for dear life.” It’s at this moment we understand Cheryl’s Mom isn’t a clueless martyr refusing to deal with their despondent situation. Despite their poverty, she feels truly blessed to be alive and hopes to teach her daughter about grabbing joy and happiness from the darkness of the unknown.

Released during the deluge of December Oscar-bait, Wild never feels as if it’s pandering for voters’ attention. Yes, it’s a one-woman vehicle, but it’s so much more than Reese Witherspoon. Though she carries the weight of the entire film on her pack-laden shoulders, it oozes with the love and affection for the source material from everyone involved.

Wild - Movie Review

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.
115 mins
: Jean-Marc Vallée
Nick Hornby
Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann
: Drama | Biography
Memorable Movie Quote: "Why are you so happy?"
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Official Site:
Release Date:
December 5, 2014 (limited)
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
No details available.
Synopsis: With the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed has lost all hope. After years of reckless, destructive behavior, she makes a rash decision. With absolutely no experience, driven only by sheer determination, Cheryl hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddens, strengthens, and ultimately heals her.

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