Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y, Dallas Buyers Club), and written by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. It is a biographical drama about a young woman determined to heal herself following a series of traumas that have led her down a path of reckless, destructive behaviour.
In 1995 Cheryl (Oscar-nominated Reese Witherspoon) made the decision to take a punishing three-month hike over more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, spanning the U.S from Mexico to Canada. This was a journey to make sense of and tame her deep-set grief, guilt, regret and depression following the death of her mother, a divorce and a stint with hard drugs. On the trail everything hurts, and despite the desire to quit she is fueled by the philosophy of her mother to ‘find her best self’ no matter the situation and cost. Though she knows she has to start living again, she is just not ready yet.
Cheryl’s journey through the picturesque and changing landscape encompasses this film, and there are similarities to films like Into the Wild and Tracks. But, this is a personal story and there is a unique informality to it all. “Day Fucking 36” Cheryl laments in voice-over at one point, evidence of a stubborn roughness that feels true to Cheryl and her journey.
Along the way Cheryl faces a number of hurdles; from the elemental (diminished water supply), to the psychological (the wandering mind), to physical (inappropriate footwear), to toxic (handsome men she might be tempted to sleep with, to creepy woodsmen who suggest they wish to rape her in her sleep), but she befriends an array of interesting characters who offer her help.
Cheryl keeps a diary, which is often narrated to us in voice-over and we flashback to earlier chapters of her life – notably her relationship with her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern, also nominated) and her marriage (and bitter divorce) with Paul (Thomas Sadoski). The way these relationships and events are cut into Cheryl’s perilous trek is one of the most impressive elements of the film. Vallee does a good job entering us into Cheryl’s mindset, revisiting these traumas through timely flashback. We first meet Cheryl as she battles to get her giant hiking pack onto her pack. The metaphor is groaningly obvious. She’s carrying baggage, and she is going to have to let go of a lot. We don’t know much about her and don’t yet understand her motivation to take such an undertaking. But, as the film progresses, her reasoning is revealed and we can see her contentedness with her life and living starting to return in the isolation.
This is somewhat a career resurgence for Witherspoon, a past Oscar winner for Walk the Line (2005). She seems to have put everything on the line for this role, and it is admirable, emotionally broad work. A rough and tumble performance from the glamorous actress. Bobbi puts on a brave face for her children, hiding a lot of emotional pain. She eventually passes away, succumbing to illness faster than diagnosed and Cheryl’s confidant, her inspiration, is gone. Dern does a great job, never going over-the-top with her good-cheer, creating a realistic character out of what we accept as Cheryl’s fondest memories of her mother.
Wild, with the exception of the strong acting, striking landscape, and the sharp editing, lacks cinematic qualities. Vallee, since the breathtaking Cafe De Flore seems to have decided to abandon the exuberant style of his earlier work. Cafe De Flore and C.R.A.Z.Y are especially stylistically vibrant. Like Dallas Buyers Club, which resembled a movie-of-the-week, Wild wouldn’t lose a lot outside the cinema. While it didn’t get the blood pumping, Strayed’s determination to accomplish this task and humble acceptance of support from others made me respect her, and having come to understand everything she had been through, empathise.
An all-too-neat wrap up and obvious metaphors – accentuation of forks in the road, hallucinatory foxes to signify beauty and comfort in the harsh landscape, and literally carrying the weight of her world on her shoulders – let the film down a little.
As a true-events biography is does have some genre trappings and doesn’t work around them as much as you’d like, but this is a powerful journey about not waiting for second chances, but creating your own, and possessing the courage to strive for peace with yourself before attempting to re-adapt to the world.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Writer(s): Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (book)
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann, Thomas Sadoski
Runtime: 115 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: January 22 2015; New Zealand: January 29 2015