With Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée has proven himself to be making some of the best dramas today. What I enjoyed about Dallas Buyers Club was the raw, up close take that it had that made it feel extremely personal. Vallee made a very down to earth movie and it was that style that probably helped lead the film to its two academy award wins last year. This same praise of authenticity can be rewarded in a somewhat lesser degree to Wild. Featuring one of the strongest performances of the year, Wild is a movie with a dedication to capturing the spirit and struggle of the real life of Cheryl Strayed in a way that overcomes it screenplay flaws and leaves you touched.
Based on a true story, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) overcomes her hard childhood, the death of her mom (Laura Dern), drug addiction among other things by traveling the Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, she will meet interesting people, reflect on her past and overcome many of her demons.
Let’s get the part out of the way that you are probably expecting. Yes, Reese Witherspoon is amazing and deserves an Oscar nomination for her role here. Everything you’ve heard about how she is in the film is correct and she does a fantastic job diving into the troubled soul of her character. You can tell how much she was interested in this story because she seems to giving it her all. Every scene where she had to cry, scream or talk about what is destroying her feels real and it makes Wild a strong character study. There’s a scene where she is reacting to her mom’s death and all while this is happening the movie splices this with a time in her hike when she is having a hard time. Thanks to her performance, this is easily one of the most devastating and moving scenes I’ve seen this year. In fact, all of her scenes where she has to overcome the unexpected death of her mom were as powerful as anything I’ve seen this year and it makes the connection she had with her mom the true highlight of this story.
The movie rounds itself off with a really great cast to support Witherspoon along the way. In the few scenes we get with her, Laura Dern leaves a touching impact playing Cheryl’s mom Bobbi. All of her scenes are in short flashbacks but in that time we get enough from her to see that she is someone Cheryl loved and tries to imitate in her own life. Thomas Sadoski stands out as Cheryl’s ex-husband Paul and the relationship she shares with Cheryl even after they have left each other is pretty poignant.
The film also impressed me with its ambitious editing. While the main focus is to show Cheryl’s hike, we also get to see some of the things that brought her to where she is now. The movie tries to tackle a lot of things but the way it does this is different than the way you would think. Most movies that go back in time do this by presenting flash backs in order from oldest to latest and making them go on for long periods of time. Wild is much more psychological and non-linear in giving the audience Cheryl’s past. Flashbacks here go on for only two minutes at a time, often have just music over them and aren’t featured in order. By doing this, Vallee isn’t attempting your standard based on a true story movie but instead a look at its hero that goes much deeper. Presenting Strayed’s like this allow you to understand the troubled psyche of our protagonist and helps make clearer how these scattered memories are haunting her and battling her on her journey.
What the films main theme is may also surprise you. While aspects of it are about her battling her demons and learning to live again, the conclusion is far quieter than you’d expect. Strayed’s win isn’t some strong, big yell of survival like Gravity or Captain Philips (not to dismiss those as bad movies in the slightest) but more like a moment of rest or peace within herself. Cheryl’s passion is nature and when everything in her life falls apart and she hates everything about her, she uses it to come to terms and seek tranquility. The walk isn’t about proving anything but instead being able to look at all that you have done and being okay with it. These things from her past all in one way or the other come back to haunt her on her travels but by the end of the hike her soul is at rest and all has come to pass.
On the hike, she is away from all her friends and all technology and all she has is the earth and the few, memorable friends she finds every once in a while. In viewing a more raw and bare lifestyle, she can find the things that matter the most and escape from all the issues that she has. This idea of seeking comfort within is something we rarely see in movies to this extent and it’s what makes Wild truly memorable.
I have a couple of issues with Wild that keeps this from being as good as Dallas Buyers Club though. I think the movie loses some momentum and gets a bit aimless near the end and by the last 15 minutes you’re kind of waiting for the final scene to happen. The ending scene is luckily outstanding but a large chunk of some of the stuff before it could’ve been left on the cutting room floor.
Something you have to understand going into this is that through and through this is supposed to be a character study. Because of this, Wild builds up a fascinating character but doesn’t deliver so easily on a real storyline surrounding her. It allows the movie to succeed in a lot of different areas but it also makes the movie fall short in some also important areas and it keeps me from falling head over heels for the thing.
Other than that, Wild is a movie I would give a recommendation to. The lack of a storyline is made up for by the astounding performance of Reese Witherspoon and the interesting way it presents the mind and demons of Cheryl Strayed. Vallee’s filmmaking continues to be excellent and we get to see a beautiful and touching look at finding peace with yourself and what is around you.
Review by: Ryan M.
Release Date: 12/19/2014
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann and Thomas Sadoski
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay by: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed