Wild (TIFF 2014 Review)

Wild (2014)

Dir: Jean-Marc Vallée

Much of the talk surrounding Wild will likely be about Reese Witherspoon and her immersive central performance. She’s in almost every frame of the movie and does career best work, bringing a real person to the screen in a rounded and believable way. But is the movie surrounding her any good? Director Jean-Marc Vallée is once again adapting a true story centred around a remarkable lead performance (after last year’s Dallas Buyer’s Club with Matthew McConaughey) and while Wild is not as consistently moving or impeccably constructed as that previous feature, it’s a well-crafted wilderness adventure and should strike a chord with those open to its charms.

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, the film charts Cheryl’s solo 1000-mile hike across the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), intercut with flashbacks to her past that provide context and resonance for her journey. Cheryl goes from a neophyte hiker who can barely lift her overloaded pack to a legend of the PCT by the end of the film, one who other characters whisper about and are in awe of upon meeting. There’s wordless stretches that show the hardships and pleasures of the march that Cheryl’s set out for herself. I found these meandering sections to be some of the most delightful of the film. It’s great to see a character simply doing things and learning, like Robert Redford in the nearly silent All Is Lost. But there’s also narration as Cheryl records her travels in her journal. It’s not as intrusive as first-person narration sometimes is but is still sometimes grating, as if the viewer can’t be trusted to go too long without hearing Witherspoon’s voice.

Vallée shoots with a shaky-cam immediacy that is initially jarring but ultimately draws you in. We’re right beside Cheryl for each labourious step of the way, hearing the dirt crunch and nearly feeling the rays of the hot sun. The movie’s studded with lots of great vistas of the Pacific Northwest (shot on location mostly in Oregon and California) and despite scenes like Cheryl losing a toenail to an ill-fitting hiking boot, Wild should stir the blood and make you want to get out and see some mountains. There’s also a queasiness to some sequences, especially the flashbacks to Cheryl’s past involving rampant drug use and sleeping around. Like McConaughey’s freakish weight loss in Dallas Buyer’s Club, Vallée seems once again pre-occupied with the human body and how it changes under different conditions. Cheryl loses weight and gains muscle, is injured and recovers, becomes free and less tethered to regular society. Pre-PCT hike Cheryl is a wreck of a human being, distraught over her mother’s untimely death and tumbling down a slippery slope of heroin and sex addiction. The camera doesn’t shy away at these key moments and at times is so close that it’s disturbingly intimate. Achieving that level of empathy is no small feat, and Vallée is certainly gifted at really putting the viewer into these situations.

Witherspoon is right along with the filmmaker for the ride, baring all in a performance that should remind people why she won an Oscar and why she may do so again. The Cheryl Strayed presented in Wild is a multi-faceted character, a bright girl who grew up with a loving mom (an excellent Laura Dern) and an abusive dad. When she loses her mother she’s left unmoored and the descent is portrayed with gut-wrenching veracity in the flashback sequences. We see Cheryl hurt those closest to her (boyfriend Michiel Huisman and best friend Gaby Hoffman) as the vice-like grip of addiction clamps down on her. It’s at her lowest that she decides to hike the PCT and reclaim her life, and that’s what takes up the bulk of the screen time. Witherspoon is doing a lot at once here, often in an understated way that suits the tone of the film (although we do see that cliché where she’s alone in the wilderness and yells out cathartically across a canyon). Witherspoon has to believably play a naïve young student, a hardened addict, a shattered woman in recovery, and the rebuilt result of all of her hard work (the movie’s timeline is fractured and the various mental states of Cheryl are doled out piecemeal). She rises to the challenge and is eminently watchable, as we see an internal journey literalized with an external one.

I suspect that there’s a segment of the population that will really connect with this movie. Wild’s themes of loss, redemption and self-improvement are strong and relatable, presented here in plain-spoken fashion. In its elliptical early passages it certainly seems destined for greatness but ultimately becomes fairly literal and loses some of its impact when it should be reaching its emotional crescendos. Well-made and revolving around an outstanding performance from Witherspoon that can’t be faulted, Wild is a moving adventure and a journey worth taking. If you’re still not sold, Reese Witherspoon gets naked in it like four times by my count*.

*(Just kidding by the way. It’s no more than twice.)

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