Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars
When we first meet Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) she is pulling a nail off of her big toe. Cheryl is on a hike and her boots are too small. On the other hand, her pack is too big. So big, in fact, that other hikers have nicknamed it “Monster.” As she begins the 1,000 mile trek down the Pacific Crest Trail it is obvious that Cheryl is heading towards a clean future. And doing her best to lose the past.
Carried on the slight shoulders of star (and producer) Witherspoon, “Wild” is a sharp and smartly directed film that, despite the basic plot (woman hiking alone), manages to entertain. If you remember Emilio Estevez’ brilliant film, “The Way,” from a few years ago, “Wild” would be a most welcome companion piece.
Told via flashbacks, we learn, bit by bit, why Cheryl has undertaken this journey. From a childhood raised by a mother (Dern) she adored to a marriage she doomed by her drug use and promiscuity to the sudden illness that takes her beloved mother, we are given small peeks into her past and then see how they affect her path. As she begins she isn’t a mile down the road before she starts trying to convince herself that she can quit any time she wants. But quitting is not on her agenda. From temperatures in the hundreds to trails blocked by snow, the further she goes the closer she is to her goal. Along the way she finds the time to leave brief messages (usually bits of poetry) in the notebooks provided along the trail, gaining an almost cult like following from fellow hikers who so rarely see a woman make the journey.
Witherspoon, an Oscar winner almost a decade ago for “Walk the Line,” has really come back to the big screen recently with a vengeance. Her performance here (and her work in the up-coming “Inherent Vice”) is strong and steady. The same with Dern. Though only seven years separate the two actresses age wise, their scenes together are moving. This is due to a combination of performance and material. Based on Strayed’s book detailing her journey, Nick Hornby’s screenplay is both straight forward and humorous. When a writer for “The Hobo Times” tries to get an interview with Cheryl he is not dissuaded by her constant reminders that she’s hiking just like everyone else and is not the very rare “lady” hobo!
Vallee’s direction, like his work on last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club,” is strong yet understated. He allows the film to flow as slow and smooth as a walk in the woods. Coupled with the smart script and fine performances, “Wild” is a must see.