For months and months, I’ve heard about Reese Witherspoon’s gritty performance in Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, but I never knew the author was a fellow Minnesotan. In fact, once I returned home to the Red River Valley after six years in California and a three-month backpacking trek of my own (through Italy), I often passed through Strayed’s hometown of McGregor, Minnesota en route to my sister’s home in Duluth. The writer was born and raised in rural Aitkin County during the early 80s; the same country landscape where my Grandfather passed away in a 1983 car accident. Although I discovered our shared Minnesota roots after viewing Wild, the visuals of Vallée’s direction made a strong impression along with Witherspoon’s Oscar-worthy performance.
The physical essentials of Wild are basic, but the tormentful inner conflict of Cheryl (Witherspoon) keeps viewers wondering if she will ultimately self-destruct. After a divorce from her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), the couple shares a mutual experience to mark the end of their relationship: a tattoo. Despite the separation, both parties remain loving towards one another, and Paul serves as the transporter of goods as Cheryl embarks on her next journey. The goal: to complete the 1,100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California all the way up to Oregon’s Canadian border. Like so many great adventures, Cheryl must learn how to survive on her own while encountering the beasts of the Pacific Wild and takes several breaks to rejoin society, re-stock and re-charge her batteries. Of course, this means several encounters with drooling men both in and out of the California sticks.
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Witherspoon delivers a powerhouse performance in Wild; a crucial component to the film’s success. However, one must not forget about the technical achievements of the director and his team. Rather than taking a stripped-down approach with minimal effects, Vallée utilizes flashback sequences to convey Cheryl’s determination along with her greatest fears, and the results are both poignant and hard-hitting. Witherspoon seemingly has several nude scenes, but the rapid editing of Martin Pensa and Vallée make the plot points abundantly clear yet in a tasteful way. As the vibrant cinematography of Yves Bélanger chronicles Cheryl’s northbound journey from desert wanderings to organized meeting points, the Cali visuals complement the inner spirit of Witherspoon’s character despite her weary exterior demeanor. Although each soul encountered by Cheryl understands the logistics of her trek, the true story of the woman emerges through her words combined with the writings of American literary icons. Ms. Strayed has a larger story to tell but only after she achieves the impossible.
Vallée duplicates various themes used in 2013’s Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyers Club: a sexually promiscuous lead character, gritty bathrooms and aggressive supporting characters. Kevin Rankin appears once again but serves as a different source of inspiration for the lead. Are the similarities a bad thing? Not necessarily. What’s special about Wild is how the colorful cast of supporting characters are handled. Without giving away personality traits, let’s just say that Vallée’s California film offers a few surprises as Cheryl decides who is trustworthy and who isn’t.
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Reese Witherspoon won an Academy Award for her 2005 performance as June Carter Cash in James Mangold’s Walk the Line, and her Wild performance is even better. Of course, the Academy loves pop culture biopics (and pop culture-laced films; see Boyhood) but Cheryl Strayed has a somewhat different story — a beautiful one — and Witherspoon’s raw performance makes Wild a worthy alternative to the contrived, yet structurally impressive, Richard Linklater film.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.