Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Plot: A troubled woman, Cheryl Strayer (Witherspoon), decides to find redemption by sending herself on a 1,000 mile hike.
I don’t really go for movies like this. Let’s be honest, the ‘finding yourself’ genre is riddled with terrible movies. Eat, Pray, Love is pure garbage. Simon Pegg’s attempt at the genre crashed and burned. Wild looked like it was going the same way. Reese Witherspoon, supposedly rivalling Julia Roberts in terms of a rich, white actress, is a nasty piece of work, who tries to find herself by putting herself through hell. It pretty much does what it says on the tin. Cue several montages of a dark past, emotional breakdowns on the road and cheesy motivational poster quotes. “I think I was lonelier in my old life.” “What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?” Yet somehow, and this is thanks to some brilliant directing on Vallée’s part, it is a truly remarkable movie.
What surprised me was how incredible Reese Witherspoon was. I have never thought much of the actress. She is anchored by a career made from doing silly chick-flicks. It is hard to look at her work and not think ‘Legally Blonde.’ However, I will never be able to look at the actress in the same way again after this movie. She just lays everything on the line and gives us such a raw and powerful performance. There is no holding back. There is no worrying about losing a loyal fan base, because she shows too many dubious moral decisions. Witherspoon just explodes on the screen, right from her anguished howl that opens the movie. She shoots up heroine, strips off naked to sleep with strangers and deffeciates as a narrative point: it is hard to imagine Witherspoon taking the performance this far, but she totally does. From a critical stand-point, you have to admire being allowed to see Witherspoon explore the boundaries and limits of her acting capabilities, perhaps even discovering that she has none. This raw honesty works, because, in many ways, it is the moral of the story. As the character descends further and further into her mission, the outside world stops becoming relevant. By the end of the film, characters outside of her hiking world insult her or threaten her, yet she finds herself unable to care. This is not a journey for them, but for her. Perhaps, in some ways, both the character and the actress are in this bubble, separate from everything else in their arcs. Nothing else matters but the journey both emotional and physical. The character’s transformation is also pretty extraordinary. It is so subtle that you can’t even see Cheryl evolve for most of the movie. She is so isolated, with only herself for company, that we end up growing with the character, rather than witnessing Cheryl mature in front of us, like most movie characters. There are several moments in the movie, where you are suddenly aware that Cheryl has become a totally different person in the space of half an hour and we were too absorbed in her journey to realise. Whenever she comes into contact with the outside world, this is where we see the changes that have happened, without us even noticing. It is both incredible acting and writing.
I love the direction of this piece too. Witherspoon might explode onto the screen with her finest performance to date, but it needs a good direction to hone and manage the role. After all, the genre is so riddled with clichés that if we were to just let Witherspoon do her thing, it would be a mighty performance but so contrived by the cheesiness of the self-discovery story. Vallée manages to craft it into something quite special. Yes, sometimes it does get a bit too much, which is why I can see why it was slightly over-looked at the OSCARs, but for the most part, it totally works. The story starts at the hike and tells the rest of the story through flash-backs, getting across the impression that Cheryl’s back story is constantly racing through her mind, always reminding her what drives her. Sometimes these flashbacks are single frames, a small pulse of the past. Somehow it makes these thoughts so much more powerful towards the development of Cheryl. She is weakened, starving and thirsty – but with one quick flash to her mother dancing on the kitchen tiles, we are totally understanding of why she is putting herself through this ordeal. One particular shot where we see a horse dying was outstanding cinematography, a brutal yet beautiful piece of cinema. If this story still doesn’t quite manage to win you over to the genre, you can at least appreciate it for the smaller moments. A small scene dedicated to Cheryl overcoming an obstacle (getting past a rock, putting on her mammoth of a backpack). These scenes play in silence, highlighting the energy Cheryl is putting into the problem at hand. There is something quietly satisfying about these small moments.
Final Verdict: Witherspoon hammers home a show-stopping performance, aided by some superb direction. Wild might not be your usual choice of a movie, but give it a go. It is a worthwhile watch.