Certain films can be both uplifting and exhausting, bringing the feel-good factor not from sunny optimism, but from a hard-won victory over cynicism and adversity. The most comfortable Wild ever feels would be in that category, taking inspiration from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail.
The book covers her 1,100 mile hike across America’s Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the border of Washington State, through extreme weather on both ends of the spectrum, without any prior backpacking experience.
Using an elliptical time structure, we first meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) at the top of a mountain, some distance into her hike, suffering through a scene of cringe-making body horror that wouldn’t be too out of place in an Evil Dead movie.
Having met her at this low point, the film then jumps back to the start of her trek and connects key milestones in her journey to earlier points in her life, exploring her relationship with her mother, (Laura Dern) the breakdown of her marriage to estranged husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) and her history of substance abuse.
On another interesting note, this is director Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club. With a $30 million budget, this is six times more expensive than that film, but even with a much wider scope, Vallée captures the sheer rigour of human hardship that made his last film such a success and brings another ground-shaking performance from his lead actor.
It has to be said- Reese Witherspoon does some of the best work of her career here. She could much more easily have starred in Gone Girl (which she instead produced) and she dropped out of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes for this, but she leaves nothing on the table in her gut-wrenching emotional and physical performance as Cheryl.
This story, at this time of year, in somebody else’s hands, could have come off as Eat Pray Love with blisters, but Nick Hornby’s script thoroughly works through the lead character’s life with unflinching detail and, crucially, no judgement. Cheryl consistently thinks out loud that she could forgive herself and quit any time, but her redemptive quest is justified by the continuous experience of her memories, not in chronological order, but one that makes sense emotionally and always follows coherently.
While the Oscar-winning make-up (achieved on a budget of no more than $250) was one of the most impressive aspects of Dallas Buyers Club, Wild deserves kudos for its editing and sound editing. It’s nothing revolutionary, but in tandem with Witherspoon’s performance in what is mostly a one-hander, the bleeding of sound between flashbacks and the present, and vice versa, gets a healthy circulation going through the film, and really puts you in Cheryl’s head-space.
In the flashbacks themselves, there’s a reassuring turn by Thomas Sadoski, who deserves more roles like this one after his sterling work in Aaron Sorkin’s late lamented drama The Newsroom, but it’s Laura Dern who often shines the brightest.
There’s only a nine year age gap between Dern and Witherspoon, but their scenes together are marvellous. Between this and last summer’s The Fault In Our Stars, it’s clear that somewhere in the last 20 years, Dr. Ellie Sattler has evolved into a great, lovable screen mum- in both films, she’s ever optimistic, if only to mask deeper emotional turmoil from her offspring.
In the present part of the story, much is made of Cheryl’s isolation, not only as a person but as a woman. She seems mistrustful of men from the start, but she’s more than capable of stumping their expectations. There’s some sly casting against type in order to make the viewer feel as uneasy as Cheryl does when she encounters certain men, on her own, out in the wilderness, including an unexpected turn from Kevin Rankin, who’s perhaps best known as Kenny from the last season of Breaking Bad.
Wild walks over a thousand miles in Cheryl Strayed’s shoes (and a good chunk of that distance in her flip flops) backed up by a rigorous performance from Witherspoon and no small amount of prowess in the overall execution. It’s fallen behind many of the other frontrunners this awards season, but that’s all the more reason to seek it out- the Oscar race doesn’t always favour the slow and steady, but this still works hard for every little detail.
There comes a decent amount of certainty that Cheryl will make it to the end of her incredible journey, but that doesn’t preclude the personal and emotional jeopardy that she has undertaken. The result, cunningly scripted by Hornby and consummately edited by Vallée and Martin Pensa, is epic, but intimate, and ultimately uplifting.
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