AT THE BEGINNING of “Wild”, Jean-Marc Vallée’s (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”) delightful new movie, the central character Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), is sitting alone on a rocky perch half-way through her thousand mile walk of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She peels the socks off her battered and bruised feet to reveal bleeding toes and a mangled toe-nail which she rips off (it’s disgusting), screaming bloody mercy all the while. In doing so, she clumsily knocks one of her boots off the ledge and watches it plunge into the valley below. You’d expect her to gingerly climb down to retrieve the boot. But no; instead she loosens the other boot and flings it triumphantly past the other one. It’s a moment of liberating madness.
The boot, like her life, her past, her failures, her sorrows has been eating into her and hampering her progress. It’s at this moment that her crazy idea of escape – walking a thousand miles alone – finds fulfillment. From this moment on, she is no longer walking away from her past but taking control of and walking toward her future. The outward journey to find the path across the rugged terrain of the PCT is matched by her inward journey across her even more rugged past toward finding peace with herself.
“Wild” converges three stunning talents: Jean-Marc Villée, the director, seems as comfortable with big format epics (“The Young Victoria”) as with this low budget, unfussy, honest tale; it’s a Nick Hornby script ( he of the brilliant “An Education” and “About a Boy”), based upon the book by the hiker herself, Cheryl Strayed; and the principal actor who dominates the screen with almost the same compelling confidence as did Tom Hanks in “The Castaway” is Reese Witherspoon. She manages to combine vulnerability, sluttishness and fierce determination that leaves you in no doubt about her character’s will to survive not only the wilderness and its (male) predators, but the demons that drover her there.
(Reese Witherspoon is turning into quite the powerhouse these days, having produced not only her biggest hit, “Legally Blonde” but also “Wild” and “Gone Girl”)
The journey of “Wild” progresses through a series of flash backs – her failing marriage (to Paul, Thomas Sadoski), her promiscuity and drug addiction, her needy younger brother and mainly the close and heart-rending relationship with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), whose death is the catalyst for her breakdown and the journey.
The dual track of Cheryl’s outer/physical and inner/mental journeys are nicely balanced. Her preparations for the thousand-mile hike – a monster of a backpack which she can hardly lift – begin as farce and her first few miles are an agony (which we suffer with her). After about five days (we read her journey which starts at “Day One” and by the fifth day it’s “Day fucking five”) she meets the first of several men who punctuate her journey. He’s ‘doing’ twenty-two miles a day. She’s doing five.
This is her first ‘milestone’ as she begins to up her game, understand better the techniques of walking and camping and shift from survival mode (her past) to goal setting (she now sets her sights on a specific spot: the symbolically named “Bridge of the Gods”).
And by the time she arrives there, freshly showered and cleansed, she no longer stinks of her former –wild- self. The journey has been her empowering achievement. She has earned the right to begin life again with an inner strength that you know can take on anything.
It’s only a pity that a movie of this caliber (actually the only one with a female lead and apart from “The Theory of Everything” the only one that features a woman in anything other than ‘male back-up’) has been overlooked by the Oscar committee (for simpler fare such as “Whiplash”). Perhaps (guilt maybe?) that’s why Laura Dern’s one-note ‘batty, happy go lucky mum’ received the nod instead. So “Wild” joins “Foxcatcher”, “Mr.Turner” and “Nightcrawler” as Oscar-worthy contenders ousted by the likes of “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.
Where’s Harvey Weinstein when you need him?
Wild. Dir: Jean-Marc Valée. Writers: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Shepherd. Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger (“Dalls Buyers Club”). Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
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