[This is a re-post of my Wild review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release today.]
Perseverance is easier said than done. We all understand that if we can just get through this, push a little harder, fight through the pain, then we will more than likely come out on the other side better off than we were before. But it is so easy to stop trying. Laze seems to be some kind of natural instinct that takes over and tells us to just give up and accept our life as it is. Director Jean-Marc Vallée follows up last year’s Dallas Buyers Club with a much more solitary drama in Wild, which recounts author Cheryl Strayed’s three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, during which she reflects on past mistakes and hardships, and struggles to find some inner peace. That’s a trite enough premise, but through Vallée’s confident, dynamic direction and a truly fearless lead performance by Reese Witherspoon, Wild turns out to be an honest, surprising, and unabashedly feminist chronicle of determination and rebirth.
Wild opens, fittingly enough, with Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed attempting to rip off her tonenail during an unspecified point in her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s excruciating to watch, and it is made all the more horrifying through the mix of resolve, fear, and anger on Witherspoon’s face. After amicably divorcing from her husband following her lengthy series of one-night-stand affairs and serious heroin addiction, Strayed has decided to attempt the 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the U.S-Mexico border in California to the U.S.-Canada border in Washington State.
Strayed is not an experienced hiker by any means, and she begins her journey with a pack on her back that looks like it weighs more than she does. During her ambitious, difficult trek, Strayed thinks back on her relationship with her mother and descent into self-destruction as she attempts to come to terms with the issues in her life. She also comes across a series of interesting people along the way that serve as a string of reminders that first impressions don’t always reveal a person’s true self.
Granted this all sounds like the makings of a Lifetime Original Movie Based on the Inspiring True Story, but Wild is actually a constantly surprising and fresh take on this kind of tale. The heart of the film is Reese Witherspoon’s bold and ultimately moving performance as Cheryl. There are so few genuinely strong, complex female characters onscreen these days that I kept waiting to see this iteration of Strayed fall into the tired tropes that plague most other films. Instead, Witherspoon does a tremendous job of fleshing out Strayed with layers of strength, vulnerability, intelligence, and emotion.
Strayed is never portrayed as helplessly weak or in-need-of-a-man, nor is she shown as the stereotypical (and mostly fictional) man-hating Feminist with a capital F. She’s a real character first and foremost, and that means there are times when she’s the strongest person in the room, and there are times when she feels compelled to ask for help. This is a real woman, not some fictional fantasy of a woman, and it’s a shame that this kind of character is such a rarity in modern American cinema.
In addition to Witherspoon, Laura Dern also turns in a fine and impactful performance as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi—especially given her limited screentime—and she is thankfully portrayed as a three-dimensional character as well, serving as the emotional center of the film. Additionally, Thomas Sadoski does swell work as Cheryl’s ex-husband, and Gaby Hoffman makes an all-too-brief appearance as Cheryl’s friend. Above all, this is a film about adults and adult relationships, and the skill and candor with which they are portrayed reminds us just how short many other films these days fall from hitting this kind of bar. Is it really that hard to accurately reflect what a genuine grown-up relationship looks like?
Directing from an introspective, often funny script by Nick Hornby, Vallée does a fantastic job of keeping the story dynamic without drawing too much attention away from Cheryl. This premise in and of itself is not tremendously cinematic, but Vallée has a mainly solid sense of how to keep the journey from feeling stale or tired. The ever-changing landscapes aid in making the picture visually engrossing, and cinematographer Yves Bélanger captures the real-world locations in a gorgeously grounded yet character-focused fashion. There are times when the pacing drags a little and the film does feel a tad overlong, but Witherspoon’s performance remains captivating throughout, which prevents the momentum from stopping completely.
While the hike and ensuing personal growth sound clichéd on paper, Hornby’s script and largely Witherspoon’s performance keep things interesting by refusing to play into stereotypes. Cheryl owns up to her mistakes, but doesn’t regret them. She’s a woman, not an object, and she has desires, thoughts, and opinions of her own that may not add up to the fictional “Perfect Woman”, but instead manifest in a relatable and realistic human being. I cannot stress enough how refreshing and delightful it was to spend two hours with a well-rounded, unabashedly feminist female character such as this.
Cheryl’s journey is less about figuring out her issues and more about starting anew. Indeed, when she first puts her giant pack on her back, she struggles to get up off the floor, just like a baby taking its first steps. This hike is a re-birth of sorts, and while it surely won’t provide all the answers, it will at least open up a new path not filled with regret and frustration.
And that’s life. Persevering through trials and tribulations doesn’t automatically make everything OK. It’s one step on a larger path that opens up new possibilities. It doesn’t get easier, but the hope is that once you’ve fought your way through, you’ll have the confidence, peace of mind, and emotional fortitude to continue along the road less traveled.