Friday, December 19, 2014

Reese Witherspoon takes a cathartic trek through the Wild

Based on Cheryl Strayed's real-life experience of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as the troubled new divorcee with no real hiking experience who latches onto the unlikely project of a 1,100-mile solo-hike as a means to deal with the mistakes of her past.

Adapted for film by Nick Hornby, Cheryl's self-driven journey is inter-cut with scenes from her childhood and young adulthood involving her mother (Laura Dern), her promiscuity and drug use, and her relationship with her former husband (The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski).

Director Jean-Marc Vallée offers an interesting character study of a flawed woman's attempt to achieve a moment of greatness. Dreadfully slow in parts, and often lingering too long on some of its flashback sequences, Wild succeeds as a character-driven drama even if it all feels a bit by-the-book (so to speak). Similar in themes to Into the Wild, Strayed's story speaks to a rebirth of sorts through nature although without a look forward as to whether or not the transformative journey actually led to lasting change.

Along with some beautiful photography, the strength of the film comes from its leading lady. With Mud, the soon-to-be-released Inherent Vice, and Wild Witherspoon has shown off some acting chops that I thought may had permanently atrophied after her recent foray into romcom hell.

Cheryl isn't a likable character, although her portrayal certainly benefits from Witherspoon's charms. Here is a woman hit hard by tragedy who has used it as an excuse to largely destroy her own life and marriage for years. Understanding of her mistakes, but not repentant for them (at least not at the beginning of the journey), Wild delivers a central character obsessed with what a cynical viewer could easily argue is nothing more than her latest selfish act. Not only are we unsure what self-inflicted hardships may await her on her journey, we also must wonder if they aren't deserved.

Although she spends most of her time on-screen alone, the movie is peppered with cameos most notably W. Earl Brown as a stranger met on the road whose short appearance is one of the film's pleasant surprises going in a far different direction than I assumed. We also see the legend of Cheryl grow on the trail from those she meets on the second-half of her journey who help spur her onward.

Taken from a book written by Cheryl Strayed herself, Wild feels a bit self-indulgent (much like our lead character) and over-simplistic in the transformative nature of her journey. The script does a fair job of teasing us to dangers that may lurk around the next pass on the trail while slowly revealing that the most dangerous moments of Cheryl's life have already been lived. It's not as complete or compelling as Into the Wild, but Witherspoon's performance alone makes it worth viewing. And the rest of the scenery ain't too shabby either.

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