Reese Witherspoon Goes Wild
Review by Daniel Rester
Audiences have seen many films over the years where characters trek through the outdoors in order to find themselves on their journeys. Just this year we had Tracks with Mia Wasikowska fall in that category, and now we have Wild with Reese Witherspoon. My favorite of films like this is the deeply moving Into the Wild (2007), and it will likely always stay that way. However, I enjoy it when other films pop up in the sub-genre, as most of them allow for a one-character-focused breather away from big blockbuster fair. Wild is no exception.
Adapted by screenwriter Nick Hornby, the film is based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012) by Cheryl Strayed. The picture is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who previously helmed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. Wild chronicles Strayed’s adventures of when she traveled along the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1990s – freeing herself from the pain of her mother’s passing, a divorce from her husband, and heroin abuse.
Witherspoon is the anchor of Wild, just as Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were the anchors of Dallas Buyers Club. With both films Vallée has certainly proved that he knows how to get powerful performances out of actors. He and cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who also shot Dallas Buyers Club, also know how to get raw and beautiful images that often involve handheld close-ups.
Those compliments being said, both films also share the issue of a free-flow editing form that perhaps makes the content less impactful than it could have been. Wild definitely has some movements and cuts that highly impress, but it crisscrosses so many different parts of Strayed’s life so quickly that it is hard to latch on emotionally to individual scenes. Instead it feels like one big montage, which renders some of the film (especially the middle portion) tedious and occasionally boring. More focus on key scenes with Strayed’s mother (played well by Laura Dern) and her ex-husband (played by Thomas Sadoski, also strong) would have played better – in my eyes – than the numerous scenes of Strayed running into people who the audience barely gets to know.
Back to Witherspoon: she is truly excellent in the film. The actress presents levels of vulnerability and character flaws here that are unusual to the majority of her roles. Think of her surprising supporting turn in Mud (2013) and then magnify it. Hornby gives her and the other actors natural-feeling dialogue to work with, and her and Vallée make Strayed complex and realistic rather than just throwing her into easy situations of soul-searching sappiness.
Though Witherspoon is the main reason the film is worthwhile, it also contains some nice uses of locations, lighting, and music. From outdoor vistas to stuffy hotel rooms, Bélanger fashions every shot expertly with his graceful movements and use of lighting. The many locations used are also beautiful, including Ashland, Oregon, the city I graduated from college in not too long ago. The music abruptly comes and goes at times, but it does stick well every once in a while; the use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” is especially terrific.
Wild is not a great self-discovery film, but it is a really good one. It deals with grief and other themes well, though I wish it had a bit more humor to it (like one hilarious standout scene involving Strayed trying to get her backpacking bag on). Vallée is certainly an artist. I just wish he and his editor, Martin Pensa, would strip down Vallée’s films more in order to remove needless small scenes and to give the movies more of a structured feeling. Constant image changing in editing can work beautifully in many ways — such as with Into the Wild — but Vallée does it to the point where it distracts away from the characters and emotions and leaves one wanting lengthier scenes with more relatability and impact. At least he fills his films with detailed images and great performances, though.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).
MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language).
Runtime: 1 hour and 55 minutes.
U.S. Release Date: December 5th, 2014.