Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Wild could’ve been a familiar rehash of the ideas from similarly themed survivalist films Into the Wild and 127 Hours, but it becomes a uniquely striking, intimate story of a woman finding solstice in the wild after her city life falls apart. This is Jean-Marc Vallée’s second directorial effort in as many years after finding tremendous success in 2013 with Dallas Buyers Club. And while his latest isn’t as socially relevant or as emotionally dense with its supporting characters, it does provide a brilliant lead turn from Reese Witherspoon in a role that asks her to work with a character that grows morally divided over the course of the narrative. Based on the true story told in the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, the story follows a woman that fell into a trap of drugs and turmoil as she proved disloyal to her husband and failed in her professional life. There’s a travelogue feel to the film as it navigates Cheryl’s life, and the story implores us to understand just how complex and difficult life can be when faced with dire, unforeseen circumstances.
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has not made her personal life very easy. The title of the film refers to not only her journey into the wild, but also her crazy explorations of self during her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski). He’s a kind man, one that cares for her deeply but also senses that she has a desire to pursue other adventurous lifestyles when given the chance. Mostly told through flashbacks, the audience sees just why she desires to move into the vast wilderness of the Pacific Coast, particularly during her drug-addled and sexual escapades outside of her seemingly blissful marriage to Paul. Cheryl explains to her friend, Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann, who delivered a tremendous performance on the criminally underrated show Transparent), that she has always been that girl that will try new things when given the opportunity. Sure enough, that comes back to bite her. Nonetheless, the film uses these flashbacks alongside even farther back flashbacks, examining Cheryl’s upbringing in a home with a single mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Bobbi raises Cheryl and her brother with a loving hand, attending school along the way and hoping to find a better life.
One element that has marked Vallée’s films is compassion. He cares about his characters, using the lens as a means of showcasing their kindness even in their wake of indifference to certain individuals. There’s a car scene told through flashback that uses Cheryl’s condescension toward her mother as a means not just of developing her as an ambivalent teenager, but more importantly of Bobbi as a compassionate, accepting mother. Laura Dern’s performance as Bobbi is one of the year’s more understated, quiet roles, mostly allowing Dern to utilize her on-screen optimism to affecting means. She has an eclectic batch of work in the industry over the past two decades, with her most recent endeavor in Enlightened being her finest. Her work there and here feels spiritually connected. It works well alongside the pessimism that spews from Witherspoon’s Cheryl, with the characters emotionally battling one another as they attend the same college in hopes of earning their respective degrees. Outside of Bobbi, though, the film falls slightly short on making its supporting characters prominent; Aimee and Paul are given time to counter Cheryl, but they never become their own entities. This is Cheryl’s film, and she dominates.
Witherspoon controls her screen time and utilizes the solo work surprisingly well. She’s never established herself as an effective lead actress in dramas, with her supporting work in Walk the Line earning her an Oscar while this year’s terrific The Good Lie proved her capable of dominating limited screen time. She provides Cheryl with a disconnected yet oddly likable appeal, using her fearfulness of traveling the wild by herself as a means of feminine exploration and empowerment. The threat of men plays an important part in multiple scenes, something that I know concerns many women when traveling by themselves. It doesn’t weaken women, but rather shows the way that men can be brutal and cast fear. There’s also an important representation of the female body, with nude scenes not sexualizing Cheryl; instead, it allows the scenes to emphasize the damage the wilderness has done to Cheryl’s body. The editing, as with Vallée’s Dallas Buyers Club, is insightful and wholly inventive, using flashbacks, quick glimpses at future and present events, and exciting new techniques to create a mesmerizing, often dreamlike haze around Cheryl’s travels. The film often proves too uplifting and light in its conclusion, but allows for a strong character exploration that finally gives Witherspoon the role her career has needed. She makes Wild an exciting, insightful, yet slightly fluffy adventure.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)