Reese Witherspoon is electric in Wild, she plays Cheryl Strayed a woman in her twenties who makes a sudden decisive decision to trek the Pacific Crest Trail. Her desire is to “walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” It’s an epic journey that ranged from the Mexican border in California to just beyond the Canadian border. As Cheryl puts it, “I’d made the arguably unreasonable decision to take a long walk alone on the PCT in order to save myself.”
The film opens atop a steep mountain slope somewhere in northern California, where in the process of removing one of her bloodied toenails she loses arguably her most precious possession. The word “fuck you” and ‘aaarrrgggh” ring out across the mountain and we are hooked. The narrative structure of the film like the book plays with structure, flashbacks to her former life are relayed as she walks the trail and the significant role her mother has played in Sheryl’s life is the emotional centre of the film. A song reminds her of the love and joy her mother expressed in the simple act of making a meal. The mother is played by Laura Dern and she constructs an unforgettable character out of a handful of scenes. “We aren’t poor because we are rich in love.” Cheryl is walking the trail to esponge the past and move on from the deep sadness that has engulfed her. Hardcore drug use, dangerous meaningless sex and general self destruction are the result of a personal tragedy that cuts her to her core. It’s the summer of 1995.
Jean-Marc Vallee who worked wonders for Mathew McCanuaghey in last years The Dallas Buyers Club, duplicates the same magic with Witherspoon. His camera is up close and personal, fascinated in the minutiae and Witherspoon revels in the opportunity to get raw. It’s arguably her most natural performance aided by the extraordinary landscape that fills the screen for most of the two hour running time. Five miles in and you get the impression she is ready to give up “the fucking trail," but she moves slowly forward. Writing in the diary that will eventually form the basis for the best selling book, and being inspired by the works of Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor, Adrienne Rich, Bruce Springsteen and Joni Mitchell. Along the trail she meets an eclectic group of characters, largely friendly, interesting and accommodating. However a scene involving a couple of redneck hunters has the potential to end badly for Cheryl and is terrifying. “I like your pants…they show off your arse,” seems a precursor to sexual violence. Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, W. Earl Brown, Cliff De Young and Brian Van Holt are all terrific in supporting roles.
Though the film has that American “find your best self” philosophy, Nick Hornby’s adaptation is largely faithful to the source material, charting the slow growth out of the darkness for Cheryl. In an awards season focused on the male protagonist, (American Sniper, Birdman, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The Theory of Everything) it is refreshing to see a film so focused on a female journey. However in a male dominated Best Picture category only Witherspoon and Dern apparently earn the right to be considered.