Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/05/14 11:01:19

"Insert "Walk The Line" Reference Here. . ."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In the opening scene of "Wild," an exhausted young woman comes to rest at a point overlooking a canyon--she is alone and if the location is not actually smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, it is certainly middle of nowhere-adjacent. Simply removing her hiking boots to let her feet breathe is a long and painful ordeal that results in the loss of a big toenail and the boots themselves as they fall into the canyon, leaving her shrieking in equal parts agony, frustration and rage. As opening scenes go, this is certainly a grabber and as the film progresses, it attempts to explain who this woman is, how she managed to find herself, both physically and emotionally, in such a seemingly absurd and dangerous situation, and how she manages to find her way out.

This is not necessarily a spoiler because the film is based on the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, so we know going in that she at least made it out in enough pieces to be able to sign a book deal. As we eventually discover, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) once seemed to have to her whole life in front of her but in the wake of the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern) from a particularly aggressive form of cancer, she plunges into a downward spiral of promiscuity and drug use that leaves her strung out and with her marriage to husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in tatter. At her lowest point, she is seized with a sudden burst of inspiration as to how to pull herself out of her depths--she will hike the entire 1100-mile length of the Pacific Crest Trail running from California to Washington. This is a particularly arduous trek that has even the most experienced hikers training for weeks before even attempting and Cheryl is anything but an experienced hiker.

Nevertheless, she sets off on her seemingly insane trek and at first, disaster seems imminent--her comically overstuffed backpack seems to weigh about as much as she does, she has purchased the wrong cooking fuel for her portable stove, leaving her with nothing but cold mush to eat, her expensive boots are too small for her feet and it is just so goddamned hot out there. And yet, even after the aforementioned point atop the canyon, she stubbornly continues to persevere where most people would have given up (or frankly never even started). Along the ways, she encounters any number of simple pleasures (the beauty of nature, the aid of decent and helpful fellow hikers willing to lend this newcomer a hand and some sage advice) and base terrors (the fearsome terrain and hikers of a seemingly less than noble nature) and these encounters in turn spur flashbacks to both the life that she is trying to escape and the one that she is trying to return to, step by painful step.

Yes, "Wild" may look like Oscar bait and it may sound like Oscar bait but don't let that fool you--it is actually pretty good. Personally, I was a bit surprised to discover this because nothing about the film struck me as being particularly appealing--I tend to be constitutionally adverse to films involving people Coming To Terms With Things, the notion of wandering through the great outdoors for any amount of time fills me with abject terror (put it this way, "The Blair Witch Project" scared the hell out of me even before the weird stuff began in earnest) and I absolutely despised director Jean-Marc Valee's previous effort, the wildly overrated "Dallas Buyers Club"--and yet I still found myself caught up in the goings-on. Part of this is because of the smart screenplay by the great writer Nick Hornby that avoids most of the cliches of this particular subgenre in order to get at darker and harder truths while still displaying a surprisingly amount of wit at certain times--I liked, for example, the moment where an experienced hand at these things (Cliff De Young) recommends that Cheryl burn the books she has brought along as she finishes them in order to lighten her load and gently suggests that doing so will not make her into a Nazi. I also liked Valee's direction this time around--rather than give viewers a lot of pedantic melodrama set against a lot of postcard-quality scenery, he finds a way of conveying the sheer effort of Cheryl's trek while giving equal weight to the emotional toll through an impressionistic editing approach that brings together both the physical and psychic pain she is enduring through the journey and the sheer release she feels upon its conclusion.

The other key element to the success of "Wild" is, of course, the performance by Reese Witherspoon, a turn all the more impressive in the way that it stands as a sort of metaphorical equivalent to Cheryl Strayed's own quest. Oh sure, Witherspoon has never squandered her life and career to become a bed-hopping junkie or anything like that but she has spent the last few years wasting her incredible talents on a group of films so grimly awful (such as "Four Christmases," "Just Like Heaven," "Water for Elephants," "This Means War" and "Devil's Knot") that it seems inconceivable that the same person who knocked it out of the part with one of the most indelible performances of the last couple of decades in the cult classic "Election" could have possibly been involved with them. For this role, she must have known that she would have gotten a number of raves simply for the physical challenges of shooting in such arduous locations but instead of choosing to simply coast on that knowledge, she digs much deeper than that and the film is all the better for it. This is a raw and wounding performance that she has clearly given her all to and the result is easily the most committed and compelling work that she has done since her Oscar-winning turn in "Walk the Line."

"Wild" is not perfect by any means. It never quite makes a convincing case as to why Cheryl decides that making this 1200-mile trek is the only way to bring herself back into the world, though I am perfectly willing to concede that this may be besides the point and says more about my morbid fear of the great outdoors than anything else. There are also more than a few moments where Valee and Hornby allow a certain degree of mawkishness to creep into the proceedings--if you want to instigate a cathartic crying jag in the final scenes, you can deploy an adorable young child or a rendition of "Red River Valley" but you cannot have an adorable young child singing "Red River Valley" without coming across as being totally shameless and manipulative. However, such moments are kept to a minimum for the most part and are usually balanced out by the tougher and more direct material surrounding them. As inspirational stories of people triumphing over personal adversity go, "Wild" is one of the good ones and deserves to be seen. The only bummer is that if it turns out to be a success, it may also inspire other people to attempt the Pacific Crest Trail themselves and I suspect that in most of those cases, the story will end less like "Wild" and more like "Into the Wild."

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