On the Silver Screen – Wild
Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild adapts the true story of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) 1000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to escape her life and find some sort of balance within herself.
Redemptive story arcs are nothing new and are commonly handled in a really clumsy way so it would have been really easy for this to be a by the numbers affair where Cheryl challenges herself and learns something in the process. Thankfully the result here is exactly the opposite with a tightly constructive narrative that resonates on many emotional levels.
Given the subject matter it’s difficult to imagine the story of a woman hiking alone for nearly 2 hours being entertaining to watch but Vallée manages to keep the audience attention throughout. The use of Cheryl’s internal monologue as a fairly realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be alone with your thoughts. She is constantly complaining to herself, questioning why she’s doing this and trying to contextualise her own thoughts as she travels. There’s also an interesting use of music to make it sound like half remembered verses of songs that she has in her head as she travels. It all helps to build a really fascinating atmosphere.
Reese Witherspoon gives an amazing performance in this film. I’ve always liked her as an actress so it’s a shame that she has been mostly appearing in really terrible rom-coms over the past few years. It’s safe to say that she’s never given a performance quite like this one. There’s a really subtle authenticity to her acting and Witherspoon manages to keep Cheryl likeable even when events in her life are depicted that could easily make the audience feel the opposite way. She plays Cheryl with a desire to make up for her mistakes but no real sense of regret or shame. She acknowledges that she’s made some mistakes but embraces them in her desire to change rather than trying to brush them away. The film gives us a narrative hook for that character trait by giving focus to lessons her mother taught her about not regretting anything because mistakes shape who a person is. It’s a fairly typical message but it’s delivered with enough sincerity to make it work. I also like that there is no real moment where she almost quits only to find the strength to carry on. I was expecting it throughout but I’m glad that her determination remained constant throughout.
There are almost two distinct narratives going on here. The first of which is the hiking story which brings many challenges as well as interesting interactions with fellow hikers along the way. Underpinning that narrative is the story of what brought her to attempt this in the first place. The film depicts Cheryl’s life as something that has caused her lots of distress prior to her hike. She was very close to her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) who was taken from her by cancer. Her mother’s death caused her to spiral into sex and drug addiction and tear her marriage apart as a result. Cheryl is a deeply flawed person and that drives the story forward in really interesting ways.
Cheryl’s relationship with her mother is really nicely presented as we see this at different stages of Cheryl’s life with the constant of her mother’s love and positive attitude being present at all points. Laura Dern does a great job in this role despite not looking old enough to play Reese Witherspoon’s mother.
In general the film is very carefully structured with enough diverting from the solitude of hiking alone to keep it from becoming boring. There are several instances of Cheryl encountering different people on her travels and each interaction feels distinct. A particular highlight comes when she meets a man who writes for the Hobo Times and interviews her in a hilariously awkward way. This contrasts with another man she meets who is really unnerving to be around. Couple this with the liberal use of flashbacks and the result is a really entertaining story that keeps a solid pace throughout.
At times the dialogue feels a little unrealistic. People are all too eager to launch into contemplative philosophical speeches about the nature of solitude and personal achievement. Cheryl is no stranger to a self analyisng internal monologue either. None of it is bad but it does make it feel like a script rather than a natural interaction.
A really engaging film with a landmark performance from Reese Witherspoon. The narrative is really well constructed and manages to hold a great sense of pace throughout.
Reese Witherspoon does an excellent job as Cheryl Strayed. Her performance is nuanced and authentic as she creates a character who is incredibly flawed yet likeable. It’s certainly her best performance in years and definitely something new for her.
The two distinct narratives of her hiking and reflecting on her past that led her to try this work really well. It turns what could have been a really tough watch into a fascinating study. Having the two narratives run parrallel keep the story different enough to remain interesting throughout.
Aside from some unrealistic sounding dialogue where characters launch into speeches that just don’t feel real the film keeps itself grounded in the reality of the situation and isn’t shy to show the struggles that Cheryl is having as well as her internal turmoil not to quit entirely.