When Reese Witherspoon yanks out her dislocated toenail in the opening shot of Wild, Jean-Marc Vallée’s biographical drama, a clear message is sent: this woman is tough. And we’re about to witness all the tough things she did on the 1,000-mile hike she forced herself to complete. Especially when her boot tumbles down the cliff almost immediately after the nail. But what follows this brief scene is a completely average film – a normal series of events told with a weighted optimism that is never anything more or less than good. It’s the opposite of wild.
Which is not to detract from the accomplishments achieved by Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the autobiography that serves as source material. Strayed (a name chosen after her divorce) never backed away from the monumental undertaking she assigned herself. As a self-declared feminist, she’s fixated on being one of the few women found on the trail, and one of the even fewer people, gender regardless, to complete it. In that aspect, and in showing her journey, the film is triumphant.
From a cinematic standpoint, however, her life story before she arrived at the trail, which grabs a large portion of the screen time in flashbacks, does not translate well to the big screen. There’s no compelling event in Strayed’s life that spurs on the drastic hike, as much as the film tries to construct one through flashbacks to her childhood with her mother (gorgeously played by Laura Dern). The film succeeds as a struggle of woman-versus-wilderness, but its interweaving of a woman-versus-self narrative is cliché and bears no impact. Sure, Strayed’s accomplishment was huge. The reasons that put her there? Not as interesting in a movie context, and that hinders the emotional punch of the film should have had, and never quite achieved.
Despite a somewhat lacking story, the film is told well, especially thanks to Witherspoon. If I could have anyone portray my life in a film, it would be Reese, so I’m glad Cheryl Strayed got to experience that. Every intention behind Witherspoon’s most miniscule actions is crystal clear from both her and Strayed’s hearts. She almost singlehandedly controls the film’s tone of weighted optimism, finding happiness in the darkest moments.
Dern has mastered the role of a relentlessly smiling motherly figure, playing almost the same role in Fault in our Stars with ferocity. Meanwhile, the newcomer fox that follows Witherspoon around and that she screams at as an artistic representation of life or something similar could prove to be a surprise dark horse in the Oscars this upcoming season.
While the individual pieces of the film contribute what they need, the sum makes a pleasant, if not memorable movie experience.