There’s a lot to be cynical about when you come across a film like Wild: it’s an absolute “Oscar bait” film all the way, from its “civilized person trapped in the wilderness vibe” (see also: 127 Hours or Into the Wild) to the fact that producer/star Reese Witherspoon snatched the non-fiction book up for a film version before the thing was even published; it claims to be about freedom from material things yet also includes frequent and irritating product placements for Snapple tea and REI camping goods; and it talks a lot about life-changing this and brilliant revelation that… but it’s mostly just talking. Not showing.
So while much of Jean-Marc Vallee’s rendition of Cheryl Strayed’s book is a full-bore, mostly paint-by-numbers, year-end “awards grab” sort of film — and one that’s not all that surprising or unique — there’s still some legitimately compelling drama to be found here. While one can plainly see why an actor/producer of Reese Witherspoon’s stature would snatch this story up and cast herself in the lead role, the plain truth is that she also delivers some of the best work of her career in Wild.
“A studious young woman turned hardcore party girl who just hit rock bottom decides to take on one of America’s longest and most daunting hiking trails,” is pretty much all the plot synopsis you need to know. Based on the non-fiction book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, and adapted by excellent screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education), Wild may offer some inspiration to those who’ve hit the end of their rope and need somewhere to fall, while to others it will feel like a long and predictable list of “carpe diem”-style platitudes. I fall squarely in the middle.
When the film isn’t focused on Cheryl’s (frequently quite colorful) trek through the Pacific Northwest, we’re offered brief glimpses of a depressing lifestyle full of hard drugs and unpleasant sex. More effective are the flashbacks involving Laura Dern as Cheryl’s wonderfully upbeat mom, but you’ll get where that subplot is going pretty quickly. (It’s pretty sad.) When Wild focuses on the nuts and bolts of Cheryl’s vision quest — building tents, struggling up hills, hitchhiking across shortcuts, dealing with random oddballs both kind and creepy, etc. — that’s when Ms. Witherspoon is at her best, and even if you’re not all that interested in seeing if Cheryl finishes her epic hike, well, at least you can bask in some gorgeous Yves Belanger cinematography.
So yeah: Wild is one of the “Oscar bait” movies, and it covers most of the key points these types of films have to cover, but it also has a few moments of unexpected insight, a ton of beautiful images, and an Oscar-winning actor who knew she’d be perfect for a juicy role, and was absolutely right.
Rating: 3 out of 5 burritos