‘If nothing else, then at least the scenery should be nice’, was the phrase I overheard as I took my seat to watch Wild, an epic, true-life tale, of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) journey to conquer both the 1100 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail and her own self-destructive demons which drove her there in the first place.
The person who made this statement needn’t have worried, as Wild is so much more than scenery. It is a fiercely powerful tale of determination, self-reflection and the destructive dark side of relationships, which occasionally, only the healing nature of solitude and strangers can resolve.
On screen depictions of journeys of self-discovery never often end well, see ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ or ‘Hector and his Search for Happiness’ for two such examples of over clichéd and condescending tales. However, with Wild, Reese Witherspoon, director Jean-Marc Vallee and screenwriter Nick Hornby, defy stereotype and deliver an astonishingly raw and relatable depiction of someone simply trying to get their shit together
As the journey begins, we are given precious little preparation for what we are about to embark on as we find ourselves dumped at the start of the trail thinking exactly the same thought as Cheryl, which is ‘how did I get here?’ Her first few miles are painful and at times painfully funny, with her lack of preparation clearly evident and often worryingly relatable.
This is Cheryl’s story and clearly Witherspoon’s film, whose commitment runs deeps both on screen and off. On screen, she delivers arguably a career best performance, recognised through an Academy Award nomination, and off screen was the driving force behind the film getting made, so recognised through her official credit as a producer.
Memories and how we process them are often fragmentary, clouded and non-linear, which is mirrored by the way the narrative unfolds through a series of flashbacks. On the surface, you could argue that some details are simply withheld for dramatic effect, but it feels more organic than this. Cheryl clearly needs time to reflect, and as the miles pass, so the fog clears and greater clarity is found. This provides the audience with the tools it needs to piece together her reasons for being on the trail and fully appreciate the physical and psychological challenges she is trying to overcome.
At the heart of this film is the all-consuming power of relationships. The flashbacks to Cheryl’s relationship with her mother, Bobbi, played by the ever-wonderful Laura Dern, are both heart-warming and heart-breaking in single scenes, with Bobbi’s infectious attitude to life and her family a valuable reminder to us all.
In stark contrast to Bobbi we see Cheryl’s true self-destructive nature come to light in her relationships with men, especially with her husband Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski. As their relationship implodes, the darkness consumes Cheryl and we see them both at their lowest, which Witherspoon and Sadoski play with genuine emotional depth. Cheryl’s relationship with her brother (Keene MacRae) feels less well drawn, but as the film develops you realise it is entirely reflective of her current relationship with him.
Where this film really succeeds though is in its depiction of the random relationships that Cheryl makes on the trail. These vignettes feel considered and authentic, demonstrating both the trusting and uncomplicated nature of conversations with strangers, coupled with the real and terrifying fear of the unknown.
At times Wild feels long in its running time, but hey there are a lot of miles to cover, so perhaps this was deliberate, but by the end of the journey, you clearly feel that you have walked, at least some the journey, in Cheryl’s shoes.
Wild stands in the footsteps of other recent long distance tales such as Tracks and The Way, and similarly, Wild pulls off the impressive feat of providing both an immersive and engaging cinematic journey, plus inspiration to get out of the dark, put some boots on and head to the great outdoors.
And yes, my fellow patron was right, there is also some nice scenery to look at.
Review by Will Malone
- Director – Jean-Marc Vallee
- Starring – Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Thomas Sadoski
- Writer – Nick Hornby, Cheryl Strayed
- Year – 2014
- Running Time – 115 mins
If you enjoyed this, then try Lady Macbeth.
This review first appeared at An Online Universe on 11 March 2015.