Based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild chronicles Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile, solo hike that begins in Mexico and ends in the Pacific Northwest (Oregon). The then twenty-something-year old did it as a way to heal herself from a divorce, her mother’s death, and years of self-destructive behavior, including sex and drug addiction.
When the film opened in cinemas on Dec. 19, I had absolutely no interest in it, primarily because Strayed is played by Reese Witherspoon, an actress I have never really liked. And then I happened upon an article in Entertainment Weekly that mentioned some Oscar buzz surrounding Laura Dern’s supporting performance as Bobbi, Strayed’s mother; and, most importantly that it was helmed by Jean-Marc Vallee, the man behind Dallas Buyer’s Club. Had a friend not pressed me into seeing Wild, I would have missed out on seeing one of the most moving dramas of 2014. It definitely should be on your must-see list.
Witherspoon has made a name for herself as a rom-com darling, and that’s probably one reason I’ve never cared for her. In most movies, she’s overly perky and smiles a lot. Not in Wild. Her character is ballsy and brave by the time we meet her, but before that she’s a train wreck spiraling out of control. We watch her having random hook-ups in the alley behind the restaurant at which she works – she is putting herself through university by waitressing – and getting high on heroin. Her relationship with her mother, too, isn’t particularly praise-worthy. She’s abrasive, and, at times, condescending. I admit that I haven’t seen Witherspoon in too many films, but from the ones I have seen, this is her most “real” performance. Any Oscar buzz is truly warranted.
Dern seems to get typecast as a hippie/free spirit, and this role doesn’t buck the trend. And yet, Dern also makes this character seem very real; very relatable. She goes beyond the free spirit caricature. She’s a complex woman. She married an abusive man, got the courage to leave him and raise her two children (she also has a son) with financial difficulty – like her daughter, she is a waitress – and then return to university to earn her degree. (Her experiences reading feminist literature is amusing.) The most moving part of the film, for me, anyway, was when she is diagnosed with cancer. The scenes that follow left me a sobbing wreck. Actually, several parts of the film had me in tears. And never once did I feel manipulated. This is a genuine, very emotional film. When it ended, I felt as if I could take a very long nap. Cathartic. That’s a good word for the experience.
The supporting players were also well cast. Some of them, I already knew well from other projects that I’ve liked. For instance, W. Earl Brown, who plays a farmer giving off a creepy vibe but is surprisingly normal, he was a henchman in Deadwood. Kevin Rankin, who has a nude scene in the film, recently played a priest on Gracepoint. Before that he played Kenny on Breaking Bad, and Devil on Justified. Michiel Huisman plays a guy who hands out pamphlets before hooking up with Strayed. The Dutch actor has been in Black Book, Game of Thrones, and World War Z. If you followed music in the 1990s, you might recognize Art Alexakis, lead singer of Everclear, as the tattooist. Strayed herself even got a bit part in the film. One of the funniest, warmest performances belongs to Jan Hoag, who played the hospitable wife of the farmer. And the most unnerving ones go to Charles Baker, another Breaking Bad alum (he played Skinny Pete), and J.D. Evermore, who played Sheriff Daggett on Rectify. They show up in Wild as two rapey hunters. For a minute, I was afraid this film was going to go Deliverance on me. Glad, very glad, it didn’t.
While watching Wild, I was reminded of The Way, the Emilio Estevez-helmed adventure/comedy/drama about a father (Martin Sheen) who, after his son dies, completes the el Camino de Santiago. In fact, I recommended this 2010 film to my friend after we saw Wild. We both agreed that Wild is better written and directed. Not that Estevez is a bad writer/director; it’s just that screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy; High Fidelity), and Vallee are all that much better.
I hate to keep throwing around the words “Oscar nominations,” but it’s that time of year when studios pull out the big guns – the films they know are going to generate a lot of critical loving – and Wild is one of those films. The only difference is is that unlike a lot of the other titles being slathered over, Wild deserves the drooling. And coming from me, a long-time avoider of Witherspoon fare, that’s really saying a lot. I don’t know what has happened to the diminutive blonde, but I think I might like her now. Maybe it has something to do with her having stepped into producer shoes. Or she’s reached an age, and a point in her career, where 1) she can afford to do personal projects and 2) wants to make films that matter. If she continues to do films such as Wild, I’m behind her 100%. I won’t have to be coerced next time her name appears below a title.
Wild will make you laugh, make you evaluate your own life, and make you cry. It will give you a valuable cinematic experience. And, after all, isn’t that what movies are for? For me, yes. One of the best films of 2014. I will cross my fingers that Wild gets much Oscar loving.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars