By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Wild? Or Mild? Given that the story is supposed to captivate us in its exploration of one woman’s physical and emotional journey on a 3-month, 1,100-mile hike (adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling 2012 memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”), the film inexplicably presents us with far more plateaus than rocky terrains.
Conflicts come and go faster than a cloudburst. Rattlesnakes, would-be rapists, thirst, starvation – it’s all initially engaging … but fleeting. As opposed to such movies as 127 Hours and All is Lost, in which the human is pitted against a random, indifferent nature — with the simmering threat of imminent death lurking in every corner of the frame — in Wild, we whistle a happy Simon & Garfunkel tune and we’re back on the road again.
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and adapted by Nick Hornby (An Education, About a Boy), Wild is a cinematic recounting of Cheryl Strayed’s 1995 solo trek in ill-fitting boots that took her from California’s Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) hikes and hikes … and as she does so, she incrementally transports herself, as per the book’s title, from “lost to found.” But painful boots aside, here’s the rub: we’re not privy to where she is in her personal timeline at the start of this journey.
We have no idea when she first became emotionally “lost,” nor how long she’s been wandering around without a steady compass. While we learn that Cheryl is grieving over her dead mother and a divorce, the references to her prior drug use and promiscuity are vague. Is she newly sober? If so, wouldn’t she be suffering from withdrawal? Or tempted to slip again? Did her philandering sex life occur only as a reaction to her mother’s death? Or had she always taken on multiple lovers? What factors drove her to marrying this particular man (played by Thomas Sadowski) and lastly, why didn’t any knowledgeable salesperson at REI help this newbie choose an appropriate boot for a 3-month hike?
Perhaps it’s due to the popularity of the book, but it appears that the filmmakers have made certain assumptions about how well-acquainted the audience is with Ms. Strayed’s story prior to the curtain rising. Whatever the reasoning, the result (with the sole exception of the mother’s back story) is that Cheryl’s immediate history is treated as a mere hiccup, with a slice of memory as a toddler here, a scrap of info as a truculent young woman there. Note to Wild‘s creators: Not all of us have read the book … nor must we in order to appreciate a movie that should, by all means, stand on its own.
As for Cheryl herself, she appears intelligent … until her actions define her as an incredibly foolish woman. Who goes on a 3-month solo trek without knowing how to pitch a tent, how to cook food or how to pack only the barest necessities that she’ll have to haul on her back? A dullard heroine is usually unappealing; audiences want to connect with a character who they can relate to. While Strayed’s story is true – she bumbled into this trip without any preparation – then her rash actions cry out for an examination. But hell, who’s got the time? Not when there’s miles of scenery that still need to be shot ad nauseam.
Witherspoon throws herself into the project with her usual spirited, full-throttle determination. Given that much of the film relies on her voiceover, Witherspoon handles it beautifully, effortlessly allowing wordless emotions to play across her face. She delivers a clear-eyed, sharp and sensitive performance – all the while physically negotiating portions of the real Pacific Crest Trail with its many demanding challenges.
But it is Laura Dern who steals the show. She portrays Cheryl’s mother Bobbi with unfaltering joy, radiating a lightness of soul that is all the more impressive in the face of cruel circumstance. The two actresses work well together — the younger Cheryl somewhat scornful of her mother, and the mother, unfazed, adoring her daughter unconditionally. It is this push/pull relationship that is the beating, driving heart of the piece.
Without it, Wild would have been nothing but a somewhat pleasant, slightly revelatory travelogue starring a pretty woman. Who never gets sunburned.
At the end of the long and winding road, between lack of dramatic heft and a character arc that’s as slender as a sapling, we’re left wondering just where the wild went.
Rating on a scale of 5 impolite suggestions to go take a hike: 2.5
Release Date: December 5, 2014
Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay by: Nick Hornby
Based on the book by: Cheryl Strayed
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman
Running Time: 119 minutes
Here is the trailer: