Woefully tethered, yet resilient in the inherently hard earned realm of perseverance, Reese Witherspoon’s embodiment of Cheryl Strayed–the real life extension of the actress’ persona in the film–becomes the centerpiece for director Jean-Marc Vallee’s latest film Wild, a rewarding, engrossing but intermittently incongruous third commercial effort from the director of last year’s Oscar sensation, Dallas Buyers Club. Following the formula of its easily recognizable, equally distinguishable predecessors Into the Wild and Tracks, Wild chronicles both the psychological and physical nature of its central character’s redemption-to-be–an arc that lies all too readily in the expanse of narrative familiarity that is, throughout its unfolding, saved by both its lead actress’ undeniable presence and a director’s irrefutable savvy in the sphere of technically hypnotic filmmaking.
We first see Cheryl (Witherspoon) befuddled, hapless and at wit’s end, in an opening sequence that not only encapsulates her seemingly insurmountable undertaking–an 1,100 mile trek along the Pacific Crest trail–but a muddled past littered with problematic happenstance. At first glance, Wild is a paint-by-numbers story of personal atonement: troubled, plagued by baggage and burdened by personal demons, Cheryl takes it upon herself to, for lack of a better term, ‘hike it off.’ Based on the 2012 memoir of the same name, Witherspoon’s portrayal of the author attempts to forget and obtain a rarefied, personal form of penance.
Unprepared and eager for escape, she sets out, unaware of what awaits her on the other side of the proverbial pond, but, within minutes of the film, Wild’s lingering sense of intrigue shifts into focus via its two most unmistakable strengths; both technical proficiency and acting prowess from one of American cinema’s forgotten talents shape the foundation of Strayed’s real life story, and so we go.
Vallee’s film says nothing new or glaringly insightful about the nature of redemption, but what saves Wild from a purely saccharine state is its convincing ability–minute after minute–to prove just how good of an astute technical structure its able to maintain. Here, Witherspoon is at her best since her impressively diligent, effervescent portrayal of June Carter 2005’s Walk The Line. Her performance draws its power not from bursts of intensity or explosiveness (although there are some), but channeled, carefully calibrated, evenly parcelled despondency.
Witherpoon’s masterstroke, however, is in maintaining an underlying sense of optimistic charm that underpins her ordeal–the kind that made her instantly unforgettable in films like Sweet Home Alabama and Walk The Line. Not to be overlooked is Vellee’s helming of the effort: In flashback sequences, his editing is sublime, often seamless. His cinematography is uniformly gripping–his pace fervently preoccupying. Witherspoon is often regarded from a distance among the spellbinding locations that loom over her exhausting endeavor as she carries on, enclosed in a seemingly unending vastness.
After winning the Best Actress Oscar for Walk The Line, Witherspoon’s career fell into a noticeable state of limbo. Since then, she’s started her own production company, Pacific Standard, from the ground up, managing to snag the rights to one of the year’s most critically acclaimed films, Gone Girl (not to mention attracting the likes of one of the most gifted directors on the market, David Fincher, to direct the film). Witherspoon has also had peripheral roles in strong films like Jeff Nichols’ Mud and, more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, but, with Wild, Vellee has created the perfect vehicle for Witherspoon’s own form of career resurrecting redemption, and she soars.
Wild is the kind of film that plucks its power from what movies of its kind do best: It sets out to, if nothing else, evoke our empathy for challenges unfamiliar to our own. It asks more questions than it’s able to answer, yet, then again, such is the perpetually elusive nature of attempting to find oneself. If there are any complaints to be had about Wild, it is its tendency–just like the temptations of its central character–to wander, but, then again, it’s a film built on this very premise, so perhaps it’s appropriate. After all, to obtain redemption is to take the journey–to place one foot after the other, however long it takes.