Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s last film, “Dallas Buyers Club”, was about a man trying to better himself in the wake of some life-changing news. The film was a compelling true story; humorous, charming and most of all, meaningful on a level other than the main character’s well-being, it seamlessly marbled a morally driven narrative with haunting glimpses into a sordid past.
Vallée’s new film, another biopic about someone suffering from crisis and seeking redemption, shares many attributes of “Buyers Club”. But these elements ultimately aren’t as effective because the story doesn’t feel entirely worthy of a feature-length treatment. Some audiences will be drawn to Yves Bélanger’s beautifully rendered landscapes, others to Reese Witherspoon’s continued deviation from her fluffy rom-com roles. Others who related to the autobiography of Witherspoon’s character, Cheryl Strayed, will gravitate to its enduring message of hope and rekindling one’s purpose and self-worth.
For me, Strayed’s journey feels a bit labored, and not in the sense that it should be. After a tragedy leaves her emotionally crippled, she finds herself resorting to self-destructive behavior and quickly slipping away from the woman she believes that her mother (Laura Dern) had raised her to be. In an effort to get back on track after heroin and deviant sex had taken over her life, Cheryl embarks on a solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail — a 1,000 mile trek from Mexico to Canada.
Witherspoon’s portrayal of Strayed is emotionally jarring in spurts, and she proves capable of running what is essentially a one-woman show (though I wouldn’t exactly call this her “Gravity”), even when at times it feels like she’s filling in gaps in Nick Hornby’s thin-spread adaptation of Strayed’s book (called “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”).
Her encounters along the trail include a solo hiker named Greg (Kevin Rankin), and a sensitive Deadhead (Michiel Huisman) with whom I suppose she gets closest to opening up. Strayed’s harrowing past is revealed almost entirely through flashbacks which somewhat linearly chronicle her descent into drug abuse and promiscuity, and eventual divorce from her husband (Thomas Sudaski).
But with little happening in the present (that being the mid ’90s in which she embarked on her odyssey), the actual foot journey only feels like a bridge from her tragic upbringing to a potentially happy conclusion. With an exception or two, there isn’t much urgency felt during her 3-month excursion, it’s all in the backstory. As a novice hiker, Cheryl’s biggest encumbrance seems to be the enormous backpack that she comically struggles to hoist over her shoulders in a motel room (she’s later given a few packing tips at a rest stop by an avuncular Cliff De Young). Is it a metaphor for the grief that she’s trying to move on from? The only time we really feel that Witherspoon’s character is in danger comes late in the film (admittedly, the scene will make you squirm).
That’s not to diminish the fantastic view (or Strayed’s extraordinary achievement). The surroundings are gorgeous. Together, Vallée and Bélanger create a striking sense of isolation throughout much of the film, as Cheryl makes her way from the red baked-clay hills of the southwest to the vast, snow-covered wilderness of northern California. The real-life Strayed has a cameo along the way.
Perhaps most riveting about the film is Laura Dern as mom; she’s a strong, bright-eyed woman who remains resilient under circumstances that go from crappy to plain unfair. Well-established is her relationship with Cheryl and Cheryl’s brother (Keene McRae), who still feel the ripple effect from an abusive, alcoholic father long after he’s out of the picture.
“Wild” vacillates between raw and uplifting, never quite reaching the catharsis we might expect. The film still bears Vallée’s fluid style and is evidence of Witherspoon’s expanding dramatic horizon (see also “Mud”). Whether it’s worth the trip is largely dependent on your interest in contemplative self-discovery stories; this one certainly has its peaks and valleys.