This is quite the weekend for the Best Actress category of whatever awards ceremony you choose to follow with bated breath. After Julianne Moore’s tour de force as a woman slowly losing herself to Alzheimer’s in Still Alice, Reese Witherspoon takes her shot at the title with her portrayal of a woman trying to put herself back together.
Wild is an adaptation of the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is set on a drug- and sex-fueled path of destruction in the aftermath of the death of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Most of Cheryl’s relationships are left shattered in her wake, including her marriage to her husband Paul (Thomas Sadowski). Only her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffman) stands by her side. In a moment of clarity, Cheryl decides to hike 1,000 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail – from the Mojave Desert to Oregon – in an effort to “walk [herself] back to the woman [her] mother thought [she] was.” Along the way Strayed becomes a bit of a legend for undertaking such a difficult journey all by herself, inspiring and taking inspiration from the various people she meets.
The movie is structured around Strayed’s long hike, with the audience treated to a selection of Strayed’s internal monologue in her solitude. Her mind wanders as she chastises and entertains herself with mantras and songs and memories. We see these memories as non-linear flashbacks to her life before it went to hell. Witherspoon is a strong presence throughout, standing up at the film’s center, even when the character cannot do so.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) transitions between the hiking scenes and the flashbacks in really interesting ways. Sometimes an image will throw Cheryl back to a memory, while other times it might be a sound or a song. The sound design in general is pretty excellent, and probably the best thing about the movie, aside from Yves Bélanger’s beautiful cinematography.
Ultimately, however, Wild feels empty. The movie is the story of a woman trying to find herself, and while Strayed’s accomplishment is really impressive, the viewer doesn’t get enough of a sense of how this is helping her, or even just how bad things were to prompt such a journey. Part of the problem is the disjointedness of the flashbacks. Because Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby (yeah, that one) establish this jumbled backstory it is really hard to get a handle on exactly what has happened in the time before the hike. Hoffman’s Aimee is supposed to be this great friend, helping to push Cheryl through, but we only see them together once. Similarly we see the dissolution of Cheryl and Paul’s marriage, but it is very unclear as to when in her downward spiral it takes place. And then there is Cheryl’s brother Leif (Keene McRae – you’ll never be angsty as Dane DeHaan, Keene, stop trying), who is apparently having troubles of his own, but is a complete non-entity in most of the film.
I suppose you could say that this is about Cheryl’s journey, and it’s not necessary to fully comprehend the entire list of Strayed’s transgressions, but it I’ll cut down that strawman I just created by saying that understanding her motivation is incredibly important. We don’t even get to wholly see the extent of her closeness with Dern’s Bobbi. We are told about it – God knows we are told about it! – but we don’t really see just what that relationship meant to either woman.
And that’s no good. For every creative step forward – such as Cheryl’s frustration at a song stuck in her head – there are two steps back – an unnecessary concluding voiceover here, a fun sexual assault panic there. In the end there just isn’t a whole lot to the movie besides a superficial tale of personal triumph that ends on a weird note. There are talented artists shoveling coal into the furnace that is Wild, but they seem to have forgotten to start the fire first.