Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
Release Date: 9th January 2015
After viewing the trailer, you’d be forgiven for writing off Wild as just another cringe worthy tale of a young woman trying to “find herself” in an unfamiliar environment. Yet Cheryl Strayed’s adventurous true story, adapted from her memoir of the same name, is much more invigorating and inspiring than vomit-inducing. Director Jean-Marc Vallée appears eager to prove this statement from the very beginning, with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) pulling her bloodied big toenail out of her battered foot in a bold close-up that is likely to prompt considerable squirming in your seat.
Vallée’s uncompromising and brave direction continues throughout Wild. Never shying away from displaying uncomfortable scenarios, no matter how uneasy they may be; from Cheryl’s troubling drug use and promiscuity, through to her mother’s (Laura Dern) heart-wrenchingly emotional scenes of cancer diagnosis, Vallée recognises the importance of showing the audience the darkest parts of the character’s past in order to understand why she is walking over a thousand miles on the lonely Pacific Crest Trail.
After McConaughey and Leto’s Oscar winning displays in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Vallée is no stranger to leading his cast to the Academy, and Wild is no exception. Nominated for Best Actress, Reese Witherspoon’s performance is her strongest to date and certainly her most powerful work since Walk The Line. Whether trapped within her own psyche during the events of Cheryl’s sad past or struggling with the physical and emotional challenges inherent as a woman walking a lone trail through the American landscape, Witherspoon is captivating throughout and reinforces her strength as a modern lead. Laura Dern’s portrayal of Bobbi, Cheryl’s ever positive and “rich in love” mother, has also seen Academy recognition this year. Dern is incredibly impressive during her character’s battle with disease, painfully lamenting about never being in “the driver’s seat of her own life” and encouraging her children to always “find your best self”. Special mention must go to Thomas Sadoski as Cheryl’s long suffering ex-husband Paul. While his character sees less screen time than Witherspoon and Dern, his presence throughout is vividly heartfelt.
While Cheryl Strayed’s memoir saw some criticism over pacing, especially with regard to her past and her reasons for setting out on a cleansing 3-month hike, Vallée’s clever and inventive use of flashbacks prevent this from becoming an issue in the film adaptation; very few dragging sections exist and the one hundred and 15 minute run time flows easily. Wild typically avoids straight narrative flashback scenes, in favour of scattered memory flashes that intertwine with Cheryl’s ongoing journey on the “PCT”, reinforcing that the audience is being shown the story through her mind and her own interpretation. Stunning sound editing and visual work make these flashes weave into the story in a seamless fashion, adding an intriguing, hallucinatory element to Cheryl’s wandering. Rainfall on the tent building into dense white noise, internal humming giving way to musical memories, a sighting of her mother in the thick wilderness – these elements combining reinforces the storytelling in a compelling fashion.
Some viewers may be disappointed not to have seen more of the trail experience itself, given the beautiful but perilous nature of the scenery. Additionally, there are points where the trek is particularly interesting and flashback scenes seem slightly distracting from the action occurring in real time.
Nevertheless, magnificent production and dynamic performances have transformed this true-life tale into a solid and inspiring story, tackling themes of hope, regret and, ultimately, redemption. Wild may even be uplifting enough to have you looking for your old walking boots and thinking about trading the beach for somewhere a little more adventurous this summer . . .
* * * *
4 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell