Wild

Review by Trevor Johnston

Directed by

Jean-Marc Vallée

Starring

Gaby Hoffman Laura Dern Reese Witherspoon

Anticipation.

Intriguing true-life material, a capable film-maker and Reese Witherspoon at her flintiest.

Enjoyment.

Everyone’s trying so hard, but the whole approach is synthetic beyond salvation.

In Retrospect.

Obvious Oscar-bait is just that. Way too obvious.

Reese Witherspoon walks straight into an awards-bait trap courtesy of director Jean-Marc Vallée.

The Oscar Reese Witherspoon won for Walk the Line must be getting awfully lonely on that shelf. One intuits as much from this trial-by-nature biopic about a former drug addict who turned her train-wreck life around by walking the 1100 mile Pacific Crest Trail then writing a book about it. Witherspoon braves the elements, looks unkempt in hiking gear, does artistic nudity during the character’s bad-girl moments, and generally approaches redemption via an Academy Awards showcase. Just watch her when this hill-walking newbie loads her pack with so much gear, she can’t get it off the floor. But she tries, she struggles, and, by golly, she makes sure she we notice her doing it.

Having optioned Cheryl Strayed’s memoir at galley stage, Witherspoon’s evidently the moving force here, and you wonder whether French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée’s feat of guiding Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to sundry awards last year landed him this gig. Probably not, given the location shooting the summer of 2013, but merely asking the question seems to chime with a general tone of contrivance.

How contrived? Has any human being on this earth ever uttered the line, “I’m going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was”? That’s perhaps the most blatant clunker in Nick Hornby’s screenplay adaptation, which threads in contextualising flashbacks every other step of the way as the determined protagonist sets herself against an implacable landscape. Presumably, this is supposed to make us care for Cheryl in a way we never really did for Mia Wasikowska in the thematically similar Aussie female solo-trek saga Tracks, but what it actually accomplishes is to stop us experiencing the ebb and flow of Witherspoon’s unfolding journey, draining the story of the sense of hard-won accomplishment we need to feel if we’re to buy its life-changing effect.

Where the ambiguity and ambivalence of Emile Hirsch’s doomed wayfarer in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild at least allowed the viewer to figure out just what they thought about him, that work’s already laid out here in a too-neat equation whereby finishing the walk will boost Cheryl’s self-confidence so she can accept her painful past and move on. Vallée’s slinky editing skills are certainly on display as he shows us the flickers of memory glinting through Witherspoon’s present travails, with an affecting Laura Dern leaving the strongest impression as the mother whose hopes of improving her own chaotic domestic lot offers signposted foreshadowing of the narrative to come.

Any hint, however, of capturing the true quicksilver quality of interior monologue is kiboshed by parcelling out her backstory in neat sequential gobbets as she ventures along the path. Of course, we feel her isolation, her understandable wariness about being a lone woman fearful of male sexual predators, but the film lacks the aesthetic courage to render the open-air duration which might allow us communion with her feat of endurance. In the end, Wild is just so tame and pre-packed it’s hardly worthy of its title.

Published 15 Jan 2015

Anticipation.

Intriguing true-life material, a capable film-maker and Reese Witherspoon at her flintiest.

Enjoyment.

Everyone’s trying so hard, but the whole approach is synthetic beyond salvation.

In Retrospect.

Obvious Oscar-bait is just that. Way too obvious.

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