Wild is what you might call an actress’s showcase. It largely consists of scenes where a solitary performer, Reese Witherspoon, gets an opportunity to demonstrate her abilities without other actors taking up the spotlight, either because the other characters are transient and limited in their roles , or because Witherspoon is literally alone for large segments of the film. And while often times this sort of film can backfire because it feeds too heavily into showing just how emotive a performer can be, Wild strikes an incredible balance between emotional moments and subtlety that makes this film more than just a stroking of Witherspoon’s ego, and elevates it into a heart-rending tale of redemption.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who has little to no experience hiking who decides to make a treacherous, 1100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Her reasons for doing so are initially unclear, but as her trip progresses and she dwells more and more on her past, pieces begin to fall into place. Hers is a journey of self-discovery and emotional healing, as the tragedies of her life come into focus, as well as the self-destructive behavior that led her to this seemingly insane ritual. Director Jean-Marc Vallėe does a masterful job of providing a scattershot yet coherent inner monologue for Cheryl that not only connects the expository flashbacks to the events happening at present, but makes the many shots of Cheryl simply walking feel diverse and entertaining.
However, to give credit entirely to the direction would be a huge disservice to Reese Witherspoon, who absolutely nails a nuanced performance with often very little to react to. There are many scenes that could have been played with cartoonish exaggeration to emphasize her emotional turmoil, but Witherspoon opts to play the role as quietly determined, only letting the emotive outbursts take over when the moment actually calls for it. Even her flashback scenes are great examples of her ability; despite being almost forty, she quite convincingly pulls off looking and acting like a teenager in some pivotal expository scenes, demonstrating a range that many performers would envy.
If there is one fault that I must emphasize, though, it is the blatant slut-shaming that is integrated into Cheryl’s self-abusive backstory. Part of the reason Cheryl goes on her epic hike is because she is attempting to come with terms with her drug abuse and promiscuity. The film treats the large quantity of sex Cheryl has with the same sort of ire as the drug use, treating both as addictions of equal measure. It is disconcerting to think that if the lead role in this film were male, the sexual component would likely not have been emphasized as much, or even glorified by comparison. Perhaps this isn’t so much a fault in the film as in societal perceptions that feminine sexuality is somehow self-destructive, but it is disappointing to see such a well-realized narrative marred by that particular detail.
That fault should not prevent you from appreciating a well-made film, though. I won’t go so far as to say the film is profound or particularly intellectually deep, but it runs off emotion and a damn good performance well enough to merit a very high recommendation. Wild is just now hitting a wider release, so if you want to see this gem in theaters, now is the time. It’ll be worth your while.