There is a special audience out there interested in a Reese Witherspoon bio-drama where she plays a self-punishing young woman whose penance is to take a 1,000 mile hike through the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trial. Wild doesn’t give Witherspoon much to do at first except take enough pain to groan and wheeze until she sputters the S-word or F-word in frustration. Much is done in quietly dire shots, the whole film is very austere. Even the scenic beauty is enervated because it’s clouded by protagonist Cheryl Strayed’s depression. You have to be a masochist to appreciate this film, or a Witherspoon lover. That would be me. And I would be among the few who admires the Oregon location shooting, as well as the authenticity of the supporting actors who play society drop-outs.
The true emotional content of the story starts clicking about forty-minutes in, after we get past the flickers of her past memories we get the full-blown flashbacks. The past is gradually parceled out, and I guess that is what keeps us involved. Although it would be just a lot faster if it just gave it to us all at once. But what incident of sex and drug abuse finally tipped Cheryl over the edge and demanded that she take a retreat into self-exile? The answer, I think, is an accumulation of all her reckless behavior. We still get more graphic tidbits as the film dallies along, this is addled sensationalism. Though I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that I’m entertained by the dirty stuff there.
There are other deficiencies by director Jean-Marc Vallee, who steered Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscars last year for “Dallas Buyers Club.” See, there are a number of times in “Wild” where Cheryl is sexually harassed or in the sights of potential rapists. I’m not doubting this didn’t actually happen, but Vallee didn’t have to make the same point so many times about the dangers of being in the company of male scum.
There are a few nice male hikers who make brief acquaintances, and Cheryl’s ex-husband has the patience of a saint. But if “Wild” reaches out to us effectively at all, it’s what is explored between our heroine and the shame she feels at herself after her mother (Laura Dern) passes away.
For many years, Dern has been a stunning actress and rarely given just praise. She brings the best out of her co-stars. Witherspoon’s best acting comes during her encounters with Dern. As for Dern, she is Bobbi, a hard luck mother. Bobbi has a good way of looking at life but is just not skilled in creating a sturdy home life. She is a devoted mother who saved the children from her alcoholic husband, toiled as a full-time waitress, dared to go back to high school, and was struck with terminal cancer at 45. Cheryl said some mean words at Mom before she was diagnosed with cancer, and the end came all too quickly before all mom and daughter feelings were patched up.
What does Cheryl set to accomplish with her blistering journey on foot? To account for all the bad memories. To reclaim her identity. And to realize that her goal was to become as good a person as her mother. That last one is the lovely message I was touched by. Witherspoon is very good in the film, but I feel she is interpreting this character rather than becoming the real person. The real Cheryl in the end shown in photo stills looks less of a self-tormentor than she does a firecracker.
119 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / FALL MOVIE
Film Cousins: “Vagabond” (1986, France); “The Mission” (1986); “Sherrybaby” (2006); “Into the Wild” (2007).