A film review by Craig J. Koban February 9, 2015

WILD jjj

2014, R, 115 mins.


Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed  /  Laura Dern as Bobbi  /  Gaby Hoffmann as Aimee  /  Thomas Sadoski as Paul  /  W. Earl Brown as Frank  /  Charles Baker as TJ  /  Kevin Rankin as Greg  /  Brian Van Holt as Ranger  /  J.D. Evermore as Clint

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée Written by Nick Hornby

WILD is a surprisingly engaging and frequently moving film considering that it involves a subject matter that’s not particularly cinematic.  

French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film concerns the fact-based story of Cheryl Strayed (based on her own 2012 memoir) of how she decided – after a devastating personal loss and subsequent self-destructive behavior – to clean up her act and engage in a hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert and all the way to the Washington state border.  The arduous journey was over 1100 miles, which she did completely on her own without much contact with the outside world.  Filming the real life tale of a three month nature hike may not seem inherently dramatic, but Vallee somehow makes it work with some crafty editing choices, an equally shrewd script by Nick Hornby, and a resoundingly powerful, career-high performance by Reese Witherspoon, who gives her best work arguably since her Oscar winning role in WALK THE LINE

Rather wisely, Hornby and Vallee opt to tell Cheryl’s (Witherspoon) unique life story in the least conventional manner possible, absconding away from the typically straightforward and linear approach to obligatory biopics.  Instead of wasting time with longwinded and tiresome introductions and expository scenes, WILD immediately thrusts us into the more hellish moments of Cheryl’s hike right from the very first scene.  We see her bruised, bloodied, and extremely fatigued.  Her one foot is so boil and blister riddled that she is forced to physically remove her big toe nail, during which time she loses one of her hiking boots as it falls down a steep cliff.  She screams and curses in panic-stricken anger and frustration.  It’s a very unceremonious manner to introduce us to Cheryl, but it effectively and expeditiously immerses us in her story.  The rest of the film relies heavily on flashbacks meticulously sprinkled in throughout the narrative, which trusts audiences to pick up the pieces of Cheryl’s life and make some semblance of it as the film moves along. 



The story set in the present is, of course, Cheryl’s journey up the west coast of America in 1995, during which time she encounters the typical ordeals – some minor, some physically and emotionally tortuous – that befalls hikers.  When the heat of the desert isn’t getting to her, fear of rattlesnakes and predators always remains a constant source of danger, not to mention a depleting food supply and – in one instance – bringing along the wrong mini-propane cylinder to cook her food.  WILD is not entirely humor-free, though, as there are some genuine laughs to be had at the expense of Cheryl’s greenhorn status as a hiker.  In an early sequence showing her prep a massively oversized backpack – which is nearly as large as her – Cheryl finds a way to get it on her petite frame, which has amusing results.  Like most people going on a long trip, Cheryl egregiously overpacks. 

The actual hike in WILD is almost of cursory interest, though, to the life that Cheryl led beforehand, which is shown, as mentioned, in a series of reminiscing flashbacks throughout her hiking experience.  Cheryl fondly recalls her relatively happy childhood with her brother and mother (Laura Dern), but darkness begins to creep into her memories – and the plot in general – as we learn of how Cheryl’s father was an abusive alcoholic that forced her mother to leave him with children in tow.  Just when things were looking on the positive for Cheryl’s mother, she becomes afflicted with cancer and dies, which put Cheryl on a tailspin of self-implosion.  Her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadowski) hits rock bottom as Cheryl turns to heroin and an adulterous and hedonistic lifestyle that involves her having sex with multiple strange men.  At one point Cheryl does fully comprehend the severity of her ways and decides to rehab herself.  “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was” as her inner monologue/voiceover narration track informs us.  The hike journey, alas, was her therapy. 

WILD is a fairly engrossing wilderness survival odyssey, to be sure, and Cheryl’s grit and determination to attempt such an incomparable feat certainly commands and deserves respect.  Yet, I was more moved by her tales of family distress, failure, and eventually personal redemption.  Vallee seems more preoccupied with supplying a deeply personal motivation behind Cheryl’s rationale to make her thousand mile journey; the film is not so much about the actual hike itself, per se, but rather the journey that leads up to it, despite the fact that most scenes in the film showcase Cheryl in the wild.  Vallee’s manner of evoking Cheryl’s memories from the past – using a loose, free-wheeling and improvisational juxtaposing of images and moments from her life with her mother – sort of visually suggests how memory works.  We often recall those that meant the most to us in fleeting subconscious glimpses – which arguably works more powerfully here in the film than the more mechanical approach of tailoring subplots and talkative sequences.  I respect how WILD allows us to decipher Cheryl’s life by peeling back one small layer at a time after another of her recollections.  The audience takes a journey, so to speak, in this film too. 

Witherspoon has always been a wonderfully empowered actress for suggesting an unfussy and forthright tenacity to her characters.  Her work here as Cheryl is no exception, as she has to run the full gambit of the emotional spectrum with her multi-dimensional and flawed character.  Cheryl is by no means a “perfect” woman, to be sure.  She made unpardonably blunders in life, including habitually abusing drugs and being unfaithful to her husband.  Yet, Witherspoon is so deceptively strong at relaying Cheryl’s greatest failings in life while simultaneously showing her grit, determination, and commendable emotional commitment to her spiritual healing.  The other performance of strong merit is from Laura Dern, who despite being just nine years Witherspoon’s senior manages to plausibly inhabit the role of Cheryl’s mother with a luminous optimism…even when life deals her multiple catastrophic blows.  The fact that Dern creates a fully realized character in brief flashback snippets here and there is a testament to her superlative performance. 

WILD sort of writes itself into a corner, though, as it reaches a conclusion.  When Cheryl finally arrives at the end of her journey…the film sort of just abruptly ends as well without much in the way of an epilogue.  It’s a bit disappointingly jarring considering Cheryl’s massive undertaking and the confluence of events that acted as a catalyst for her journey.  Yet, it’s so exceptionally rare to find troubled and imperfect, but headstrong, independent minded, and resilient female characters written with grace and soul in movies these days that I’m willing to turn a blind eye to such nitpicky dramatic flaws.  WILD, much like Vallee’s DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, is a thoroughly transfixing tale of a suffering main character on a journey of reawakening.  Both films are about people – at their lowest points in their respective lives – fighting through barriers placed in their paths. 

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