Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Gaby Hoffmann
Sometimes it takes a drastic and meaningful exploration into how a person who once had a commanding life and promising future could make a few poor choices that completely ruined their prospects. Director Jean-Marc Vallée smartly focused on the unfortunate turn of events that took away a person’s seemingly bright life path, and the subsequent powerful transformation that offered a chance of redemption, in his new biographical drama, ‘Wild.’ The film, which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, not only focuses on the author’s gripping tail of recovery after experiencing a few years of painful addictions, but also the much-needed career revitalization of the talented and versatile Reese Witherspoon.
Wild follows the emotional recovery of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), a former addict who’s determined to forge ahead against all odds on a journey that both exasperates and ultimately heals her. After her beloved mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), died from lung cancer at the age of 45, the 22-year-old Cheryl embarks on a destructive path of reckless behavior, including heroin and sex addiction, for several years. After her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), discovers the truth about her careless behavior and the two go through an amicable divorce, Cheryl makes a rash decision to help her move on with her life.
Driven only by her determined willpower, she decides to hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone, despite not having any experience. While her friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann) questions her decision to go hiking alone, and reminds her she can call her at any time for help, Cheryl is determined to complete the hike. She feels driven to finish the entire trek, in order to prove to herself that she has what it takes to survive on her own.
As Cheryl hikes from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border over the course of three months during the summer of 1995, she not only relies on the kind encouragement she receives from strangers along the way, but also the support she continuously receives from Paul. That reassurance helps her contend with her past and present pain, and allows her to once again find the inner peace and strength she held so dear growing up, before her mother’s terminal diagnosis.
Witherspoon, who not only starred as Cheryl in Wild, but also produced it through her new production company, Pacific Standard, impeccably immersed herself in the role and embraced making the biographical drama independently. After starring in several critical and box office failures following her Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in 2005’s Walk the Line, including the romantic misses How Do You Know, Water for Elephants and This Means War, Wild is one of her latest films that is helping to prove her true vulnerability and strengths as a performer.
The actress truly embraced hiking up the mountains, much like Strayed did in real life, on the drama’s filming location in Oregon and California. Witherspoon’s true embodiment of accepting her rough and rugged surroundings as she portrayed Cheryl’s determination to come to terms with the way her life has turned out was a true cathartic exercise for both women’s resolve of letting go of their prior misgivings.
Not only are the scenes where Cheryl is shown hiking alone and questioning her decision to continue on the trail, despite her best intentions to move on with her life, powerfully emphasize her internal struggles, but Witherspoon also instinctively and grippingly highlighted the struggles of the character’s past. As Cheryl reflected on the disgraceful ways she lashed out at the people who were only trying to help her following her mother’s death, including Paul and Aimee, and the destructive addictions she all-too-willingly embraced, the actress empathetically showcased how the writer powerfully transformed into a self-sufficient, independent woman.
Not only did Witherspoon captivatingly showcase Cheryl’s powerful emotional and mental transformation through her challenging journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, but production designer John Paino also grippingly emphasized the protagonist’s perplexing journey. Vallée, who also helmed another recent heartfelt biographical drama, last year’s Academy Award-winning Dallas Buyer’s Club, smartly understood that a film’s locations influence the effectiveness of a scene just as much as the emotions of the actors. So the director appropriately allowed Paino to utilize diverse areas across the trail, including patches of abandoned dusty deserts, serene and quite mountains covered in snow and remote and at-times menacing forests, to emphasize how secluded Cheryl was from society throughout her hike.
While a major portion of Wild focuses on Cheryl hiking alone across the Pacific Crest Trail and the momentary physical obstacles she’s forced to overcome, including running out of food and water and battling the distinct and sudden changes in weather in different areas of the path, Witherspoon perfectly embraced the character’s strong will and desire to physically and emotionally survive. In the harrowing flashback sequences where Cheryl is not only contending with her mother’s illness and death, but also her growing addictions to cope with her unexpected loss. Witherspoon also effortlessly highlighted her total transformation into taking control of her attitude and behavior. Nearly a decade after her award-winning turn in Walk the Line, the actress finally proved she’s once again worthy of being considered a serious acting powerhouse, as she made her latest biographical drama a powerfully reflective examination of what it truly means to find inner-strength.
Written by: Karen Benardello