Reese Witherspoon has had a hell of a year. She produced the massively popular and exceedingly well made GONE GIRL, she co-starred in THE GOOD LIE, a sadly overlooked docudrama that came out earlier this year, and she has a juicy role in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, INHERENT VICE. But more than likely, the 2014 film the Oscar winner be remembered for most is WILD, from director Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB), based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her life-affirming (and -threatening) 1000-plus-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, completely alone with no training or preparation of any kind.
Strayed's life leading up to her journey was not a good one. She threw a grenade into her marriage with a nasty heroin addiction and a reckless string of men with whom she cheated on her husband. She also endured the cancer death of mother Bobbi (an absolutely radiant Laura Dern), whose unwarranted positive attitude toward life infected her daughter and son with both passion and a stinging sense of the evil in the world, no matter how good you are.
WILD is told in a non-linear fashion, with Strayed's walk serving as the constant thread, while her mind wanders to various events in her tattered life. Certainly things happen on the walk that snap her thoughts back to the here and now, usually involving running into a fellow traveller, a threatening local, or a severe injury (usually involving bleeding feet). But it's Strayed's fractured past that has put her on this path, and the glimpses into her whirlwind recent history are often painful, often difficult to watch. Dern is the heart and soul of the film, and it's likely Bobbi was some form of manic-depressive, which is genuinely terrifying to behold in Dern's performance. When she's on screen, the film is elevated beyond Vallée's direction and a keen screenplay by author Nick Hornby (AN EDUCATION).
But the real revelation here is Witherspoon, who gives a performance that is neck deep in waters she's simply never wandered into prior to this. She doesn't hold back when it comes to showing us Strayed's dabbling into sex and drugs, and I'm sure most writers will focus on that aspect of the film. But the key to her acting here is an underlying rage that starts to appear when it becomes clear that Bobbi is near death. The transformation is so noticeable, you almost think you're watching a new, undiscovered actor making an unforgettable debut. But there's also something familiar in the way she plays Strayed—confident but vulnerable, strong but afraid she's actually weak. It's a nuanced performance that I won't soon forget.
WILD is one of a small handful of films of late that has been about people going on a modern-day walkabout to find themselves, clear their heads and just generally hit reset on their swirling lives. But this film doesn't quite easily fit into that mold; Strayed is just doing something impulsive to escape her screwy life. The re-centering is a happy byproduct of this long walk home. And that makes the whole experience seem less new-agey and more relatable about simply being clouded and overwhelming with sorrow and misery. Not to make Cheryl's journey sound depressing; WILD is often a joyous experience. Experience it and enjoy it as such.