This is Reese Witherspoon's big Oscar push and the strength of her performance - easily the most forceful and memorable aspect of an otherwise unremarkable motion picture - may well earn her a nomination. Witherspoon certainly goes all-out, doing her best on-camera work since Walk the Line (for which she won an Academy Award) and offering her most daring exposure since Twilight. Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), Wild attempts to show how getting back to basics can arrest the downward spiral of a life pulled out of orbit by the gravity of pernicious influences.
While Cheryl's journey is interesting, it isn't as compelling as the one embarked upon by Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild). The most arresting aspect of Wild isn't Cheryl's perambulation along the 1000-mile long Pacific Crest Trail but the memories that percolate to the surface as flashbacks. Understanding why she started the journey is more dramatically satisfying than watching the trip unfold. There's never much sense that her life is in danger - maybe that's because we know she survived to write the book. It was different in Into the Wild (in fact, McCandless died).
The "present" storyline, set in 1995, follows Cheryl's trek along the trail from the California/Mexico border all the way up into Canada. She encounters some of the typical issues faced by hikers: sore muscles, inadequate provisions, inclement weather, and other travelers who aren't always helpful. (The creepiest sequence is one in which Cheryl shares filtered water with a couple of men.) There are opportunities for humor, as on the occasion when Cheryl first struggles to don a heavily laden backpack that probably weighs as much as she does.
As she walks, she reminisces. The flashbacks jump around the way memories do. Cheryl remembers her childhood and happy times as a young adult still living at home. Then the darkness begins: the death of her mother (Laura Dern), taken by cancer; the deterioration of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadowski); drug use and reckless sex; and finally the recognition that if she doesn't do something to change her life, an early grave awaits. Her solution, a personal rehab of sorts, is the three-plus month challenge of the Pacific Crest Trail.
The two most compelling reasons to see Wild are Witherspoon and the cinematography. There's no doubting the actress' dedication to the role. She goes all-out and, as a result, brings Cheryl vividly to life. There may not be a more committed female performance in a 2014 film. This isn't just Oscar-bait; it's evident that Witherspoon believes in what she's doing here. Valle, who steered Matthew McConaughey to an Oscar in 2014, shows an understanding of how to bring the best out of his actors. As with Dallas Buyers Club, Wild is more about acting and characterization than narrative. Strong, resilient women in non-superhero settings are a rarity; it's refreshing to encounter one in these circumstances. And, although the camerawork never threatens to overwhelm Witherspoon, there are some lovely shots (but one wouldn't expect otherwise from a movie called Wild.)
Psychological transformations are more easily depicted in writing than on film, and the one explored in Wild is no exception. The narrative is effectively woven and the flashbacks fill in the background but the final tapestry is a little threadbare. I wasn't bored but neither was I as engaged as I expected to be. And, for me, the ending falls flat. The point of Wild is the journey, not the destination but to have everything wrapped up with a few-line voiceover feels like a cheat. Nevertheless, this is a solid, character-based drama with one of the year's best performances to recommend it.
© 2014 James Berardinelli