Sunday, December 7, 2014

Review: Wild

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Reese Witherspoon gives her best performance in years - perhaps the finest since her Oscar winning turn in "Walk the Line" - in Jean-Marc Vallee's "Wild," which is based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. While on the surface, the film may give the appearance of being one of those tales of an individual attempting to survive while aiming to conquer unforgiving mother nature - such as "Into the Wild" or "127 Hours" - but it's also more than that.

In fact, "Wild," which tells its story via a fragmented narrative, is not only a strong character piece, but also an occasionally grueling tale of an addict seeking recovery and the story of a mother-daughter bond. And all of these elements are handled pretty well.

We are introduced to Strayed in the film's most visually harsh sequence as she removes a toenail that she has broken during her 1,000 mile trek across the lonely Pacific Crest Trail. She has undertaken this long walk as a method of rediscovering herself following her failed marriage, which broke up as a result of her reckless drug use and numerous affairs. Strayed is also attempting to move past the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern, terrific in all the flashback sequences in which she appears), whose demise likely pushed Strayed into drugs and unhappiness.

Other minor characters in the film appear - including Gaby Hoffman in a slightly underdeveloped supporting role as Cheryl's pal Aimee and a handful of random characters Strayed meets during her hike, some of whom are helpful and a few of whom are menacing - but Witherspoon primarily carries the film on her shoulders. It's a very good performance.

While the picture is a little similar to films such as "Eat, Pray, Love" in that it follows a character who takes a journey to reconnect with herself, it's a little more complex. At times, the film is harrowing, especially during flashbacks to Strayed's drug abuse, but also during earlier scenes in which she and her mother struggle to flee from Cheryl's abusive father.

And while Cheryl's primary purpose in walking the trail is to "find herself" again, so to speak, she also learns to reconnect with others. There's a sequence during which she asks for help from a man whose outward appearance is a bit intimidating and, naturally, she is afraid of him at first. There's also a later scene during which she finds herself attracted to a man passing out tickets for a Grateful Dead tribute concert. Neither of these scenes play out exactly as the film sets you up to think they will.

In other words, some might consider taking a walk through nature to "find yourself" as a cliche, but the film does not treat it as such. "Wild" is the type of movie that sneaks up on you in surprising ways. Much like Vallee's previous film, "The Dallas Buyers Club," it follows a complicated individual with whom we might not always sympathize, but it never makes them anything less than compelling subject matter.

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