Wild (2014) – Film Review
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
by Jen Grimble
Over time, Jean-Marc Vallée has become an archetypal director of biographical dramas. After the relative success of The Young Victoria, the Canadian film-maker brought us Dallas Buyers Club. It is a career progression that won three Academy Awards. So Vallée has rather large walking boots to fill with his follow-up project. It’s an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Though Wild does not quite reach the stature of its predecessor, it is by no means an anti-climax. In fact, it is one of the most powerful feminist movies of the year.
Not too far removed from the ideas represented in Dallas Buyers Club, Wild equals its older siblings’ handling of dark subject matters. The film brings humour to difficult themes, whilst maintaining a degree of seriousness. Where Dallas Buyers Club explores sexuality and the stigma of disease, Wild focuses on the strength of the single female. It does so through a non-linear but highly efficient narrative.
Vallée maintains a single-character montage throughout the movie. No other character gets time to develop, nor gets the dialogue to take centre stage. Staying entirely faithful to the original story, we meet Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon). After the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), Cheryl’s life spirals into drug use and promiscuity. She is 26, and decides to walk 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Heroic and emotional”
When Cheryl’s husband seeks divorce, she finds herself penniless and completely lost. Determined to heal wounds and reconnect with the person she once was, Cheryl sets off on the brutal hiking route. It runs from Mexico to Canada, along the Westerly American coast. As she travels Cheryl is plagued by memories. They reveal themselves to us like small puzzle pieces, which eventually form her complete story. Her tale is erratic, heart-breaking, and memorable. Told mainly through in-head dialogue and flickering flashbacks, we see the events that lead to Cheryl’s breakdown. With Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Stevie Ray’s music, art and literature allows for a fluid link between present and past.
Vallée, perhaps unknowingly, plays homage to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This is a short story which explores the idea of the items that physically and mentally weigh us down. When Cheryl reaches Kennedy Meadows, a stranger helps her to clear out her backpack. This symbolic ‘throwing away’ of unneeded items, both lightens her physical load and allows Cheryl to cleanse the personal burdens she carries. It is after this symbolic scene that Cheryl begins to heal.
Witherspoon is given full reign. Her performance is as good as any of her previous ones. Wild is by far Witherspoon’s most dynamic and difficult role to date. Yet she brings to life this heroic and emotional story with a surprisingly empathetic portrayal.
With a script courtesy of Nick Hornby, and a director who knows exactly how to win awards, Wild is a thoughtful and relate-able rendition of the timeless ‘lost and found’ story. With a barren landscape that reflects the hazardous back-story of its protagonist, this poignant adventure explores the beauty of loss and growth, making it one of this year’s most underrated offerings.