I had relatively low expectations for Wild, the latest Reese Witherspoon vehicle, of which she is also a producer (her second of such credits this year after Gone Girl). It is based on the story of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who went through a journey of self-discovery while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and later wrote a book about it. There is, of course, much more to Strayed’s story than that, but from the way the movie was being sold to me through promotional materials and media coverage, I had all reason to expect something between Eat Pray Love (which I haven’t seen, but assume is a pretty bad movie) and Into the WIld (which I have seen, so I know it is a pretty bad movie). All that, plus it being Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to last year’s so-so Dallas Buyers Club, made me suspicious of the movie’s quality.
The lesson here is that one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, because Wild ended up being a much, much better movie that I could’ve imagine. Sure, from a thematic perspective, there isn’t really that much meat to the story. Or at least nothing that is particularly new to the “self-discovery” genre. The movie does, however, feature a rather touching sub-plot involving Cheryl’s relationship with her mother (played by an achingly adorable Laura Dern), as she is diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of forty-five. But where the movie truly excels is in its presentation.
WIld might not be a thematically novel experience, but it is certainly a engaging one. Nick Hornby adapted Strayed’s memoir into a surprisingly tight screenplay, especially considering the episodic nature of the material. Not only that, but from what I understand, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is essentially a book about a woman thinking while she walks through the desert and later the woods. Now, try to dramatize that. The script’s biggest strength is in its natural sense of humor, which is present even in the most dramatic moments. And even its weaknesses, like the lack of a clear three-act-structure arc to Strayed’s trail, don’t feel like such.
That is because Vallée, too, does pretty well for himself. He already flirted with using sound to express a character’s state of mind in Dallas Buyers Club, and he turns those exercises into action in Wild. This is, after all, a movie about being inside a woman’s mind, and Vallée has decided that sound (or the lack thereof) is how he is going to achieve this. That, and the occasional use of surreal, flashier shots are essential to the movie’s success. The fact that the movie understands Cheryl’s thoughts are much more valuable as images than dialogue is the key step that is far too often forgotten by Hollywood filmmakers.
The cherry on top -but a fundamental cherry- is the character of Cheryl, and the filmmaker’s understanding of her persona. No disrespect to Cheryl Strayed, but she is not a “hero”. She is not an “extraordinary” person. She is a regular human, like you and me, and her story is one that could have happened to any of us. It is, of course, commendable that she managed to hike more than 1,000 miles (I most likely wouldn’t be able to), but the value of telling her story isn’t in the importance of her achievement, but in the personal value of the journey.
The perfect detail of this is how Cheryl goes through the trail leaving quotes by famous authors and co-signing them with her name. It’s an incredibly pretentious thing to do, but one that not only fits with the character (she did, after all, do it in real life), but is treated with the necessary sobriety. Cheryl might be signing her name next to Emily Dickinson’s, but the movie doesn’t think she is the be-all-end-all of humanity. Neither does Reese Witherspoon, who turns in one of the strongest performances of her career. It’s definitely been a while since we had this Reese in our screens. The one that captivated us in Election, Legally Bonde, and Walk the Line. I, for one, am very glad to have her back. And judging by her new role as producer, it seems like she is staying.
Grade: 8 out of 10.