Reese Witherspoon is having a good year.
Not only did she produce David Fincher’s excellent Gone Girl with her production company, Pacific Standard, but she also produced and starred in Wild, an adaptation of the acclaimed memoir by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (who’s definitely in an upswing coming off last year’s lauded Dallas Buyers Club) and adapted by Nick Hornby (who wrote the novels About a Boy and High Fidelity, among other notable works), Wild has all the ingredients of a great film. Brought to life through two moving performances by Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, it is easily one of the best film’s I’ve seen in the last year.
Overall, Wild is a story of rebirth and renewal. Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed begins the film well into a solo trek on the thousand-plus mile Pacific Crest Trail, in a pilgrimage which she believes will make her become the woman she was meant to be. Though much of the film chronicles her struggles as an amateur hiker undertaking this massive task, Cheryl’s painful past is also illuminated through the clever use of intercut sequences and flashbacks. Through these sequences the audience learns that her trek is as much about punishing herself as it is about seeking renewal. After the abrupt and traumatic death of her mother, portrayed by Laura Dern with her usual effortless charm, Cheryl’s life spirals out of control as she turns to drugs and cheating on her husband to fill the void. The clever use of flashbacks allow the film to navigate a rather lengthy amount of time in Cheryl’s life, filling in nooks and crannies of the story while also allowing for the clever use of symbolism and juxtaposition. By the end of Cheryl’s journey, it feels as if a significant amount of time has passed and there is a distinct weight and meaning to the trajectory of her emotional arc, something that is particularly hard to achieve in less than two hours.
Much of the film’s success can be attributed to Witherspoon’s portrayal of Cheryl. I don’t think I have ever heard as much narration in a film as there is in Wild, but somehow Witherspoon manages to imbue every word with a casual, stream-of-consciousness normality that makes her thoughts sound incredibly natural and relatable. Though it may make some screenwriting professors quail, Cheryl’s inner monologue really helps get the audience into her head, creating a character that is both sympathetic and frustrating in a very real way. Witherspoon once again proves that she’s an actress worthy of note, navigating the complexities of Cheryl with subtlety and courage. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so compelling and her Oscar nomination this year is certainly well-deserved.
Despite being given limited screen time, Laura Dern’s Bobbi is the heart of the film. Dern embodies a woman who may not have gotten all that she wanted out of life, but still did her best with what she had. Her limitless love for her children is palpable and it is easy to see why her death proved so debilitating for Cheryl.
Directed with the same down-to-earth style that made Dallas Buyers Club feel so lived in, Vallée really shows that he is at the top of his game here. His translation of Hornby’s brilliant and cleverly structured script (seriously, go read it, it’s awesome), is a thing of beauty. Aided by Yves Bélanger’s impressive cinematography, the film captures the beauty of nature and solitude just as well as it portrays Cheryl’s idyllic memories and descent into depression. The score/soundtrack is fitting, filled with doleful vocals and echoing strings that perfectly capture the poetic feel of much of the imagery on display here.
As a whole, Wild does feel like the journey that it portrays, one that has a decidedly phoenix-like trajectory that will leave you feeling contemplative, yet uplifted by the last frame. Elevated by two of this year’s best performances and directed with care and subtlety, it’s definitely a film that should not be missed.