We are not born with a set path in life to help guide us through the good times and the bad. It is the decisions we make that steer us into who we become. Based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild unfortunately isn’t able to formulate a cohesive track. With more bumps in the road than twists and turns, this journey of self discovery creates little wonder or revelation to rationalize a main character walking over 1,000-miles that isn’t, herself, a Hobbit.
At age 22, distraught over the loss of her mother and a most recent divorce, Cheryl Strayed is a train wreck of drugs and affairs. After a few traumatizing wake up calls, now 26, Strayed embarks on a hike up the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100-mile walk through the Mojave Desert of California to the Oregon-Washington border. Along the way Cheryl meets various hikers and reflects on her rocky past to hopefully gain some positive self-perspective that can help turn her life around.
Coming straight off his Oscar darling Dallas Buyer’s Club, I expected slightly more from director Jean-Marc Vallée. Overwrought with flashbacks upon flashbacks and voice overs upon voice overs, Wild lacks discipline in its editing and screenplay written by Nick Hornby, author of About a Boy, High Fidelity, and Fever Pitch. Something a seasoned director like Vallée could have touched up during production.
The flashbacks do work well to shape the relationship between Cheryl and her mother Bobbie, who is played wonderfully by Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) – the best performance of the movie in my opinion. However, there are so many flashbacks, that there are teases to flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks that cause the movie to drag. They all feel so disconnected, and its only when the movie deems them important to the plot will we see them in full. This wastes a lot of screen time that could have focused more effort on Cheryl’s journey in the present.
When we do spend time with Cheryl in the present, rather than providing any insights as to how she is handling the hike, we are consistently bombarded with explicit, four letter words in voice over. Strayed does meet other explorers however, but they serve limited impact toward her growth in finding resolution. For the most part, secondary characters simply praise her for making the hike alone as a woman. Even her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) is practically a non-entity. Conversations about her experience on the PCT or what she has learned about herself in the process are miniscule at best.
And it’s not as if Reese Witherspoon wasn’t trying to give her character depth. She does a stand up job staring in the distance while portraying a colorful range of emotions. In fact, that’s the thing, the dialogue is so few and far between whereas the non-speaking scenes are bountiful. Reese owns these. It’s all in her fantastic body language and physical presence. There are a couple laughs at her expense when she first tries to put on her ginormous rucksack, periods of physical angst and exhaustion, and brilliant times of tension and terror. If Hornby worked on the dialogue as much as Reese and Vallée had done nailing these scenes, the film would have come out a lot stronger.
My biggest issue with Wild is the driving force that led her on this hike and the end result. I will not go into detail as to how her story ends, but I could not find any specific purpose in this journey that she couldn’t have solved through therapy or rehab. The movie literally depicts her picking up a book about the PCT and that’s how she decides to go on this adventure, apparently
. And while on this trek into the wild I found it difficult to stand behind this character’s decision to travel the PCT and mend her inner demons. Lots of people have issues, and if you’re telling me they need to go on a hike to resolve them then give me a good reason. After having spent almost two hours mulling over why she should be cleansed from her sins, at least come up with something more clever than a 30-second voice over to justify her redemption.
Never straying far from its linear narrative, Wild hardly sets off on a trail of unpredictability. Despite some gorgeous shots of wilderness mixed in with the organic sounds of nature – rather than an imposing dramatic score – Cheryl Strayed’s hike along the PCT provides meager resonance to fully appreciate her story as a cinematic achievement. And although Strayed’s tale is one hell of an accomplishment, the same cannot be said about this adaptation.
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Wild was directed by Jean Marc-Vallée and has a run time of 115 minutes The film hits theaters on December 5, 2014 and is rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language.