Eat Hike Recover: "Wild" resonates with Witherspoon's raw work

Wild (2014)
115 min., rated R.

Much more than calculated Oscar Fare or a feminine "Into the Wild," "Wild" is a slightly familiar journey of self-discovery and perseverance that hits the viewer with a moving catharsis. Reese Witherspoon and her production company, Pacific Standard, optioned the rights to Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" about her 1,100-mile hike along the ruggedly beautiful Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border for 94 days. Weighed down by the cumulative effect of her cancer-afflicted mother's death, divorce, and a hardscrabble life spent numbing her body with drugs and anonymous sex, the 26-year-old decided to drop everything in Minneapolis and make a life change in the summer of 1995. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (2013's "Dallas Buyers Club") and screenwriter Nick Hornby (2009's "An Education") adapt this one woman's personal, soul-searching hike, and Witherspoon gets to dig deep in the role.

Telling one's inspiring true survival story could bring a sense of sanctimony on the screen, but "Wild" feels fully earned and deeply felt, as it's all in the power of the stream-of-consciousness storytelling, sharp editing, and use of sound (i.e. cicadas and ringing after the blowing of a whistle). When we first meet Cheryl in medias res of her travels on the PCT, all we hear is her heavy breathing, possibly in sexual ecstasy, but in actuality, she is climbing a mountain. Next, she takes off her boots too small for her feet to reveal a black, loose toenail, which she then pulls off. After Cheryl curses and screams at the wilderness, the film reveals pieces of this damaged woman's life through dribs and drabs into the past. Understandably, Cheryl is devastated by the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who beforehand decided to go back to college, strolling the same halls as her daughter. Before revealing that she might be pregnant, she tells best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann, in her second supportive best-friend role with an abortion context after this year's "Obvious Child"), "I'm an experimentalist. I'm the girl who says 'yes' instead of 'no.'" Cheryl and her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), have divorced because of her cheating ways, but they remain friends; they get matching tattoos to celebrate their divorce and he even sends her care packages for her trip. Through the fractured, non-linear storytelling, we do not have to agree with Cheryl's poor choices to understand her state of mind and why she decides to go on such an arduous trek alone, using her mother's positive outlook and source of strength to finish what she starts.

In adapting Cheryl Strayed's story, the filmmakers do not sugarcoat her past of addiction, despair, and lack of self-control in the flashbacks of Cheryl, working as a waitress, taking on two men to have sex with and shooting up heroin in a hotel room. Material like this sounds like a dreary dirge, but there is also natural humor throughout, like Cheryl struggling to strap on her weighty backpack (nicknamed "monster" by another backpacker) in her hotel room and her lack of preparation in setting up a tent or learning she bought the wrong kind of fuel for a portable stove. She's even stopped by a reporter from The Hobo Times, who sees her hitchhiking and is looking for a "lady hobo" to interview. Once Cheryl actually begins her hike, she has a run-in with a rattlesnake and later encounters a couple of leering hunters, as well as a rancher (W. Earl Brown) whose motives could go either way, and with all of these moments, the film hints at a sense of danger while smartly sidestepping cliché.

Not that she was only capable of making films for commerce over art—she will always be remembered for playing nutty overachiever Tracy Flick in 1999's Election"; she made dumb look smart and winning in 2001's "Legally Blonde"; and she did win an Oscar for her work as June Carter Cash in 2005's "Walk the Line" after all—the radiant and intuitive Reese Witherspoon gets much more to showcase here with a very meaty role that requires the responsibility to portray a real person with the utmost honesty. Free of any make-up or vanity during such an obviously rigorous shoot while carrying 65 lbs. on her back, the likable actress hasn't been this raw, shaded, brave, emotionally (and literally) naked, and unglamorous. Cheryl is flawed, fallible, and self-destructive but never irredeemable or abject; she's not even prepared for her solo hike. Aside from the faintly strange casting—there is only a nine-year difference between the two actresses playing mother and daughter—Laura Dern finds such truth in her short-lived role as Bobbi, a spirited, loving mother who made her kids a priority by leaving her abusive alcoholic husband and then working menial jobs to support them, and casts an affecting impression. 

"Wild" does have a tendency to be too on the nose. A reappearing fox is a heavy-handed symbol, and Cheryl leaving an author's literary quote, along with his or her name and her own, at each trail registry is a stretch for high-minded meaning. What surprises the most about this self-help journey is how director Vallée and writer Hornby richly condense the real Strayed's book with a structure that could have been inelegantly presented, but everything flows together beautifully, aided by Yves Bélanger's eye-filling cinematography, and many of the edits give one a chill. Since Witherspoon has probably felt uninspired in her career lately, not unlike Matthew McConaughey who was in the middle of being at the height of his powers when "Dallas Buyers Club" came along, her belief in telling this story shines through and her challenging herself warrants attention. She doesn't do it all by herself, but it's a major testament to Witherspoon that "Wild" profoundly resonates to the final frame of this meditative portrait of a woman on her way to be renewed.

Grade: B +