‘Wild’ Review: Reese Witherspoon’s Long Walk Pays Off With Big Rewards

By  · Published on September 10th, 2014

Fox Searchlight

“Strayed” isn’t really Cheryl Strayed’s last name. The author and subject of “Wild” was originally born Cheryl Nyland, and eventually decided to change her surname after years of pain and a particularly wrenching divorce – and, if the movie adaptation of her novel is to believed, it was literally plucked out of the dictionary after careful consideration – into something that echoed, well, how she had strayed from her path, and possibly her wish to get back on track.

When we first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) in Jean-Marc Vallee’s lovingly crafted Wild, she’s bloody and bruised and gasping, perched high atop a mountain, desperately pulling off her too-tight hiking boots to reveal a blood-soaked sock and a big toe that’s in bad shape. Terrified and alone, Cheryl yanks loose a cracked toenail, practically spits in pain and jostles loose a single boot, which tumbles down the rocky incline, never to be seen again. Cheryl’s next move is perhaps a bad one: she stands, screams and chucks her other boot after it. How do you get back on track after that? You stand and you yell and you chuck your other boot. And then you keep walking.

Like Strayed’s book, Nick Hornby’s script folds flashback scenes from Cheryl’s earlier life (including her childhood and her young adulthood) into the forward narrative of her traversing the Pacific Crest Trail by herself in a bid to come to terms with past troubles and emerge into a fresh future. Strayed’s downward spiral appears to have been a complete and complex one, and flashbacks reveal an abusive past, an ailing mother, problems with drugs and something that sure looks like sex addiction. Although it’s essential that we learn about what Cheryl has previously gone through in order to understand the reasons for her journey walking nearly 1,100 miles up the Pacific Coast, the scenes eventually feel repetitive and a bit heavy-handed. They’re far better and effective when they stay restrained and fuzzy, trusting that Witherspoon’s natural and winning performance and Vallee’s artistry can convey exactly what led to this particular moment in Cheryl’s life.

Cheryl appears to be almost bafflingly unprepared for her journey – too weak to lift her overstuffed pack, too inexperienced to make sure she has the right gas for her stove, too immature to last very long on her own – and she has to make some big changes in order to survive until its end. The hike is treacherous for Cheryl, both emotionally (the entire point of the journey is exorcise a multitude of personal demons) and physically (she’s continually walking for three months, which would strain anyone), but that doesn’t dilute her surprise at some of the things she finds on the trail. Most people are kind, but it’s the rare bad apples that activate a flinty fight or flight instinct in Cheryl, the kind that signals that she really might be have rediscovered her own self-worth along the trail.

As the film steadily works (and walks) towards its conclusion, a stranger on the road (weirdly, a reporter for The Hobo Times, no joke) accuses Cheryl of being a feminist – a claim that Cheryl answers in the affirmative without blinking an eye. Cheryl is indeed a feminist, and although she doesn’t need to say it for that to be clear, it’s refreshing for her to announce it so firmly. The film itself is remarkably forward thinking and feminist in nature, and Vallee and Hornby don’t flinch at portraying how hard it is to be any woman, not just a woman who happens to be walking by herself in the middle of nowhere. Cheryl is often harassed by both men and women – a hotel clerk all but accuses her of being a prostitute early in the film, and a number of men along the trail leer at her and freely making offensive comments about her appearance – but Cheryl stands her ground and comes out stronger on the other side.

Wild doesn’t aim for high inspiration or fussy performances, and it benefits from staying honest and rich, instead of going for big speeches and bigger set pieces. The production may very well be in the eventual Oscar conversation, but the aim of Vallee’s film and Witherspoon’s particular turn isn’t centered on that, and the result is something natural, raw and satisfying, a breath of fresh air in the increasingly crowded biopic wilderness.

The Upside: Witherspoon’s fine and unfussy performance, a daringly forward-thinking and feminist tone, lush scenery, an unpretentious take on the kind of material that could be trumped up.

The Downside: The flashbacks tend to be heavy-handed and repetitive, some of the supporting characters (particularly Gabby Hoffmann) don’t get enough attention, it was a mistake to not get a different actress to portray the younger Cheryl.

On the Side: Strayed’s half-sister – who knew that Cheryl existed, but did not know her name – discovered who she was while reading the book and reached out via email.

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