Wild Review: Reese Witherspoon Gets Oscar Buzz for Trailblazing Film

Reese Witherspoon in Wild
Reese Witherspoon in Wild Fox Searchlight Pictures

In theaters Friday, Dec. 5. 

3 stars (out of 4)

Us Weekly Film Critic and Deputy Editor Mara Reinstein filed the below dispatch from the Toronto International Film Festival. 

Try to name the last female-centered movie in which the heroine doesn’t come away with a guy, a kid, a job, a home or a trophy. And she still gets an uplifting, happy ending. 

Go ahead…  

(Still waiting) 

All the more reason to appreciate Wild, an absorbing and beautifully shot adventure-drama that premiered September 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival. While the movie lacks all the emotional punches of Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, it's still an inspiring tale of perseverance.

Reese Witherspoon — who, face it, hasn't had a meaty role since 2005's Walk the Line — is poised for a mini-comeback (and possible Oscar consideration) with her strong, vanity-free turn as the author. We first meet Cheryl, dirty and makeup-free, at the top of the cliff in the heat-soaked California wilderness. Looking down at her bloody toenails, she angrily chucks one of her ill-fitting hiking boots off the cliff.

How did she get there and what prompted this girl to go Wild? Cheryl recalls her heartbreaking past via artful, non-linear flashbacks. She was raised by a loving single mom (Laura Dern) who recently died of cancer. Her marriage went kaput because of her multiple affairs with other men. Her brother has totally checked out. Alone and in need of a fresh start, she sets out to hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail during the summer of 1995. “What the f— did I do?” she grumbles to herself on Day 1. 

Though she has no experience and her enormous backpack (nicknamed "The Monster") nearly topples her over, Cheryl summons a steely resolve to withstand her treacherous environment. This is where Witherspoon really impresses. Completely devoid of her Hollywood glamour, she cries and swears and scarfs down food with her fingers and licks dew off a tent just to get water. In the flashbacks (and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks), we also see her take heroin and engage in anonymous sex. It’s a stripped-down performance on every level. 

If only her trek captured all her travails. And this is not the movie’s fault, per se. Intimate memoirs like this simply make for tricky big screen translations. We know that Cheryl struggles, but we aren’t able to walk step-by-step with her for all those miles and empathize. At one point, she’s forced to take a detour and stay in town — a seismic internal debate in the book but barely a passing thought here. The real fellow hikers she encountered had individual personalities and backstories. In the two-hour film, they’re virtually anonymous. To amp up the drama, a sexually dangerous threat is conceived in the form of a leering hunter. Not necessary. She’s in enough peril as it is.

All the shortcuts ultimately work against the final product: When Cheryl completes her remarkable trek and exults in the accomplishment, audiences are unable to fully share in her joy. It just doesn’t feel earned. (Unlike, say, James Franco’s against-all-odds triumph in 127 Hours). It makes for a mild disappointment because Cheryl’s strong-willed survival story is a vivid lesson in bravery and resilience. She’s a true trailblazer, indeed. 

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