So good in the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon has thus far failed to deliver another performance of such quality. Her smallish role in the excellent Mud notwithstanding, Witherspoon has hardly been seen on screen of late, certainly not in anything of substance. In what is perhaps her most provocative performance in many ways since Freeway, Witherspoon takes on the lead role of Cheryl Strayed, a woman who embarks on a 2500-mile journey on foot in an effort to purge herself of the demons – both chemical and emotional – that have sent her spiralling towards self-destruction. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club, Café de Flore), Wild shares visual, narrative and thematic qualities with the likes of Into the Wild, The Way, or even Australia’s Tracks and Strayed is, to some extent, an amalgam of the lead characters from each of these films.
Based on real events, Wild is a story of determination borne from loss. When the death of her mother (a typically strong turn from Laura Dern) leaves her emotionally destroyed, Strayed seeks solace through drugs and sexual promiscuity, with no regard for her own welfare or those around her, including husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Eventually, when she has seemingly lost everything, Strayed sets out to trek the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. The problem for me is that the extent of her self-destruction is hard to understand and ultimately that makes it difficult to care enough about whether or not she completes her attempt to walk from one end of America to the other. Yes, the death of her mother was premature and unexpected, but that hardly seems justification for the craziness that follows. No doubt in a bid to placate multiplex audiences who demand that everything be explained to them simplistically, a lot of time is spent in flashback tracking Strayed’s life from her time at college as a conscientious student to the wild days following her mother’s death. It all just seems a little contrived; the nude scenes and drug binges seem more about Witherspoon reaffirming her position in the Hollywood pecking order, perhaps in reaction to the countless young actresses making their mark on screen today.
The best moments are those spent on the trail as Strayed – who was remarkably naïve about the task she had set for herself – battles the elements and her own lack of preparedness; her backpack is too heavy, her shoes are the wrong size and she has no means with which to cook. As a woman undertaking the journey alone, she finds herself susceptible to all kinds of potential harm, much of it in human form. There are moments of genuine tension in some of the encounters with others on the trail. If the film spent more time with Cheryl on the trail and less with the back story of how she came to be there, it would be an even better film. There is no middle ground offered here, as if to say that such an extreme undertaking is the only possible way to rid yourself of the vices that have gripped your life. Does her reason for undertaking this journey make it any more meritorious and worthy of our admiration? Not really. It is the journey itself that offers so much scope for both narrative and character development and it is when we are on the trail with Cheryl that the film soars. It is in the moments of solitude in which Cheryl is battling the elements that we see Witherspoon at her best.
There is nothing particularly bad about this film and it is certainly never boring but, given the talent involved (Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, which was based on Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail), I was expecting something pretty special. Vallee’s direction is necessarily composed, particularly during those moments when Cheryl is struggling alone in the middle of nowhere, and Hornby’s screenplay creates moments of tension through ambiguity. Yes, we see Cheryl removing a mangled toenail and suffering various other scratches and bruises, but ultimately she emerges from this arduous escapade looking pretty fresh and I can’t help but think that it might be this lack of authenticity that has prevented the film from being the awards season champion that is was so obviously intended to be. Having said all that, Wild is a quality film, Witherspoon’s performance is great and the journey itself is certainly an epic undertaking.