I’ve always thought that Reese Witherspoon was capable of more than Hollywood was allowing her to do: while she occasionally gets the opportunity to do more challenging work, she’s been pigeonholed a bit as “America’s Sweetheart” and generally has not been offered the roles that allow her to flex her acting muscles. Most people think of her as the sweet and perky Elle Woods from the Legally Blonde movies or from her work in romantic comedies (blech). I prefer to think of her role in Election or her Academy Award Winning performance in Walk the Line as more representative of who she is. Anyone who gets drunk and fakes a pregnancy to a police officer has more to her than This Means War and How Do You Know. Thankfully, her performance in the new film Wild is a big step in the right direction and contains quite possibly the best performance of her career. This is a side of Reese Witherspoon that we are not used to seeing and it’s a breath of fresh air. If 2013-14 was the year of the McConaissance, here’s to hoping that 2014-15 is the year of the Reesurection (trademark pending).
Wild is based on the memoir of the same name by Cheryl Strayed; after her mother Bobbi’s (Laura Dern) death, Cheryl’s (Reese Witherspoon) life spins out of control. Without that anchoring force in her life she is completely adrift and indulges in self-destructive behavior. She begins cheating on her husband (Thomas Sadoski) with a string of anonymous affairs and develops a heroin addiction.
Desperate to get her life back on track, Cheryl decides, despite her lack of wilderness experience, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) – a long and challenging trail that spans from Mexico to Canada. Alone of the trail, Cheryl will have to confront some of her demons, reflect on past decisions and hopefully find some peace. It’s a beautiful and emotional journey that is strengthened by the spectacular performances by Witherspoon and Dern.
Reading about someone’s quest for self-discovery can be pretty fascinating, but watching someone on an arduous hike who is pondering their life isn’t guaranteed to be all that interesting. It’s a credit to the direction, writing and performances that they were able to make the transition from page to screen so seamlessly. Cheryl is obviously a flawed person and has made some poor decisions, but the film doesn’t shy away from that and gives a warts and all depiction of a woman that is clearly lost and struggling. Nor does the film judge Cheryl; while she may occasionally behave in a way that the viewer doesn’t like or approve of, she herself is rarely unlikable. The fact that you continue to root for Cheryl through it all is a testament to Witherspoon’s performance. This is a much rawer and realer Witherspoon than we have become accustomed to seeing on the big screen; at the same time, this is also a contemplative and thoughtful performance – Cheryl feels not only like a real person, but a person you would know or be friends with. It is a grounded performance that in a film that doesn’t claim to have all the answers or needlessly insert action. Stuff happens on and off the PCT, but mostly the point of Wild is the journey itself. Played the wrong way, Cheryl and her story could come across as narcissistic and self-absorbed; yet another tale of a woman setting out on a great spiritual quest after a break up (Eat, Pray, Love – I’m looking at you). That’s not at all what Wild is – if it was, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did. One major distinction is that Cheryl is not a privileged bourgeoisie out on ad adventure; this trek on the PCT depletes all of her savings and there is no life to run back to. Cheryl doesn’t find a man on the PCT or all the answers; she simply finds herself.
Just because Cheryl doesn’t have to hack off her own arm (a la 127 Hours) or wrestle a grizzly bear, that doesn’t mean that Wild is a boring film. There are plenty of moments of struggle, where you aren’t sure if the PCT is actually breaking Cheryl down or building her up (or both). Hiking the PCT is no joke and Cheryl has her setbacks – her lack of wilderness experience only compounds the difficulty of her hike. The film has taken the time to develop the characters so that you are fully invested; nothing out or the ordinary necessarily has to happen for there to be drama. As Cheryl tries to make sense of her life and her past, you care about everything that has happened to her. The stakes are small, but they are very real. The story is told in a non-linear fashion and relies heavily on flashbacks, which helps break up the monotony and isolation of her hike. There is also plenty of humor in Wild; the film is not only focused on her spiritual journey and Cheryl’s wry sense of humor is present throughout the film. This is not a joyless drudge to enlightenment.
Laura Dern makes the most of her somewhat limited screen time and you can totally understand why her character’s death sent Cheryl on such a downward spiral. She is part Earth mother and part survivor; she’s an optimist who is also a realist. Life did not deal her an easy hand, but she made the most of it for herself and her children. You can see in her a lot of what Cheryl is looking to rediscover in herself. Cheryl and her mother are soul mates and you feel the devastation upon Bobbi’s passing. It’s a small but powerful performance.
Some other thoughts:
- The cinematography in Wild is absolutely gorgeous. I’m not one that is necessarily overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, but there are some spectacularly beautiful scenes in this film.
- There are some brief, but somewhat graphic, sex scenes in Wild. It’s all tastefully done and not gratuitous, but it just further distances Witherspoon from her usual roles.
- How good is Reese Witherspoon in this movie? I totally bought her as a heroin user.
- Though they play mother and daughter, only 9 years actually separate Dern and Witherspoon.
- I’m only about halfway through Strayed’s memoir and while the film is a pretty faithful adaptation, there are some changes. The step-father and sister are eliminated from the movie and Paul’s provenience is slightly beefed up in the film. But in reading the book, I was amazed at how well they captured the spirit of the memoir in the adaptation. And there is some very keen eye for detail in the wardrobe department.
- This was the last film that I saw the Film Columbia film festival and it came pretty close to being my favorite, which is saying something. It’s been a very good year for movies.
- Everclear frontman Art Alexakis has a bit part as a tattoo artist. I was impressed – and a little dismayed – that I recognized him immediately.
- I am not a person that finds the idea of camping or hiking even remotely attractive, so I was particularly impressed with her determination to do this. I’m guessing I would have made it on the PCT just as long as it took me to find a town with a hotel and peace out of there. A wilderness chick, I am not.
There’s not much more to say about Wild than I really loved this film and I’m very glad that Reese Witherspoon seems to be moving her career in a much more interesting – and hopefully successful – direction. It’s always a pleasure to see and actor living up to what you think they are capable of and Wild reinforces everything that I’ve secretly thought about Witherspoon over the years. It’s an emotional and fearless performance that helps bring a compelling and spiritual memoir to life. I was 100% drawn into this depiction of Cheryl’s quest for salvation and appreciated the honest look it took of a woman who had become lost once her beacon of light was gone. It’s a poignant, funny and touching film that stuck with me long after I saw it. I imagine we’ll be hearing a lot about Wild – and Reese Witherspoon – come Oscar season. Let the Reesurection commence!
Wild is currently in limited release.