At first glance, it seems almost laughable to think of Reese Witherspoon, one of America's staunchest sweethearts, playing a character that is not only not bubbly, but downright unlikeable. Yet that's exactly what she does in Jean-Marc Vallee's [Wild](movie:767988) , an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, and the result is something quietly incredible.
Witherspoon's Cheryl is already a profoundly lost human being when we meet her, and after the premature death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), she is completely wheels off. She leaves her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), starts using drugs, and has sex in strange alleys with even stranger men.
In a desperate attempt to get her mind right and break herself of her wildly self-destructive tendencies, the inexperienced and impulsive Cheryl decides to hike 1,100 miles along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. Alone.
And it's here that we meet Cheryl for the first time in a pre-credits scene that shows her in the middle of her hike: Alone, frustrated, and with bloody feet after losing a boot down a ravine. She's in over her head, but she has always been in over her head in life. As she hikes deeper into the wilderness, she goes deeper and deeper into her memories, attempting to sort out her demons from herself.
But Wild is a redemption story done right, a redemption story done real. It's not a film for those who like nice, neat endings or final answers to life's big questions. There is no magical epiphany here; Cheryl does not magically become a wholly different, more beatific person by the end of the film. Its non-linear plot and meditative tone is less definitive and more impressionistic, with thoughts and moments weaving together to tell the intensely personal story of one woman who is wholly human, if not always a likable one. Yves Belanger's cinematography is beautiful, capturing both the expansiveness and minuteness of the internal human experience.
But regardless of her moral compass, Witherspoon carries the film on her shoulders, and she's up to the task. At turns defiant, broken, naive, hopeful, self-hating, despairing and strong, Witherspoon is magnetic in the role - and she has to be, with the vast majority of the film resting on her shoulders.
In the end, there is no great change in Cheryl. But we're left with enough of an impression of her inner resiliency to hope that when she walks out of the wilderness, she'll keep moving forward. Neither memories nor internal change come to us easily, but there is the potential for a fascinating story within us along the way.