Wild opens with Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) ascending a craggy hill before stopping to remove one of her boots to see why her foot is pained. She removes the loosened big toenail therein, but not before accidentally knocking said boot back down the hill. She pauses, removes her other boot, angrily sends it down the hill after its comrade and screams in pure vexation. This scene neatly sums up Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club; it serves up pain and anger in an effort to draw attention to itself and the worthiness of the true story on which its based. When is a true story not a true story? When it’s used as awards bait. Wild takes a potentially-interesting story of self-enlightenment and robs it of practically all interest. It means well, in the same way that Eat Pray Love meant well. Whilst not as offensively bland as that film, Wild peddles a similar message to very little effect. If someone does find this adaptation of Strayed’s memoir inspiring, that’s all good and well, but it’ll be in spite of the film rather than because of it.”
In 1995, the aptly-named Strayed took it upon herself to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100 mile-journey stretching from the US-Mexico border to British Columbia, hugging the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. The film certainly sells the rugged beauty of the trail, brought to vivid life by cinematographer Yves Bélanger. Into the clearing, bag on back, comes our Cheryl. Adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, Strayed’s memoir details the personal traumas that led her to undertaking the trail. We get these reasons in flashback, usually when Cheryl is at the apex of suffering. She’ll fall down or lose some vital equipment just in time for us to cut to a woozily-shot scene of Cheryl’s late mother (Laura Dern) being positiviley beatific, or a grungy scene of Cheryl’s wayward exploits with drugs and extra-marital affairs. The latter scenes are particularly jarring, as Vallée exploits Witherspoon’s on-screen nudity with a leery, judgemental eye.
It’s this award-sniffing self-awareness that renders much of Witherspoon’s valiant efforts moot. Wild is the primary weapon in an apparent peroxide-draining career reinvention for the Oscar-winner, dabbling in darker material like Inherent Vice (in which she stars) and Gone Girl (which she produced). Witherspoon opts to go withoutherspoon to play Strayed, and she suffers admirably, but the characterisation of Cheryl is best described as petulant. She whines and moans in the early stages, crawling along under the baking sun. Her whines wouldn’t be out of place in a culture-clash comedy about valley girls falling into puddles of mud. Meanwhile, Hornby is forced to resort to flashbacks to drive the narrative, but it only adds to Wild‘s episodic feel. Dern single-handedly saves these sections with her smile and laugh, even though her character is only missing wings and a halo to complete her angelic image.
In between the punctuating flashbacks, Cheryl encounters all manner of locals and fellow travellers to egg her on. Whether it’s a kindly farmer (W. Earl Brown) offering refuge, or her ex (Thomas Sadoski) sending a care package, Cheryl’s journey isn’t as solitary as it should be. An encounter with a terribly-CG’d fox on a snowy peak will leave punters either confused or amusedly muttering “Chaos reigns” into their popcorn. Wild is full of moments that aim for inspiration, but most ring false. The flashbacks are too corny and/or self-important, and Cheryl is written and played a little too annoying for comfort, hence it’s hard for an audience to truly get involved. The overly-worthy tone and message about self-discovery will only bounce off an audience in a comfortable multiplex. It’s drippily accessible, but anyone who thinks a more measured and lonely journey wouldn’t work onscreen needs to rewatch All Is Lost urgently. Wild is anything but.