Monday, December 15, 2014

A Reel Review: WILD

In 1994, a 22-year old woman named Cheryl Strayed hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail on her own. Her experiences on that lonely trail, and why she took on such a journey eventually turned into a best-selling book; a book which has now seen the big-screen in the form of Jean-Marc Vallee’s WILD. 

After the death of her mother and painful divorce, Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an in-experienced hiker, decides to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Coast Trail all by herself. 

WILD literally starts off right in the middle of the desert, with a young and pretty and diminutive woman struggling through the desert with a backpack twice her size and probably twice her weight. Why this woman is there and how she got there is exactly the hook of WILD. Through a series of elongated flashbacks, not unlike THE GODFATHER PART 2, the life of this woman, Cheryl, is unfolded gently yet steadily. The extended flashbacks are seamless and transition smoothly and nearly un-noticeably and often run parallel to Cheryl’s lonely and difficult trudge through the desert wilderness. 

Director Jean-Marc Vallee, who in 2013 explored the human condition going up against impossible odds from the male perspective in the Oscar-darling DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, once again ventures into the psyche of the human being, but this time from the more gentle feminine side. Where his previous effort was aggressive and blunt in its male-dominated approach, WILD is all about the feminist side and presents its story, problems, and narrative in a gentle perspective that keeps the film moving and interesting. Vallee works with multiple layers of storytelling in bringing Cheryl’s past experiences into the present by digging into literature and pop-music from generations past; coupled with stunning cinematography of the California desert landscape…WILD is a dense, non-linear story which keeps the mind and the soul engaged. 

It’s worth mentioning that WILD stumbles around the (ahem) wilderness a little. The structure gets a little tedious and redundant; Cheryl hikes along, encounters a mishap, meets a fellow hiker, makes a friend, goes back on the trail…rinse and repeat. It’s repetitive and you can nearly count the beats before the same thing happens again. It’s probably a case of sticking too close to the source material, and you may find yourself waiting for something huge to happen to shake things up. Another point worth looking at is that every random male Cheryl encounters on the trail is painted as, or set up to be a predator or some sort of threat. This could point towards Cheryl’s distrust of men (the character is an admitted feminist), and likely an important point in the book, but for a movie that is already very strong with its main character and storytelling, it feels like an un-necessary ambiguous message and could be off-putting.

At the center of it all is the outstanding, heart-wrenching, mind-blowing performance by Reese Witherspoon, who goes through the tough physical and emotional work to create a hero that you cannot help to root for despite her flaws. Witherspoon is funny and sad and the most human character to hike that lonely trail on film and it is a true triumph of her career. The supporting cast which includes Laura Dern (as Cheryl’s mom), Gaby Hoffman, Kevin Rankin, and Thomas Sadoski are all excellent. 

The finale doesn’t go for any sort of bombastic wrap with a character climbing an over-dramatic mountain or running away from any sort of avalanche or flood, but instead spends its time getting into the heart and soul of the character one last time; making for a satisfying and proper end for Cheryl’s journey. WILD spends 90% of its time with one single person, and it never fails to explore every inch of that person’s heart and soul. 


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