By Marshall Shaffer
On the page, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is nothing particularly noteworthy. While she tells her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with raw honesty, the book is often little more than a hybrid of “Eat Pray Love” and “Into the Wild” that insists on its own importance. The grueling odyssey is enlightening into the evolution of her psyche, though it usually achieves such an effect by excessive elucidation.
On the big screen, however, “Wild” is an altogether different beast. In fact, it is better. The book fell into the hands of a caring filmmaking team that sees the cinema in Strayed’s tale. The collaboration of star Reese Witherspoon, screenwriter Nick Hornby, and editor/director Jean-Marc Vallée yields a wholly gratifying film experience because each uses their own set of talents to draw out the soul of the book.
Hornby is among that rare breed of writer who can balance his role as humorist and humanist. Whether in his own novels or adapting someone else’s words for the screen, as he did in 2009 with “An Education,” Hornby’s stories percolate with snappy wit and superb characterization. Here, almost entirely all of that skill goes into the development of Cheryl, whose 1,100 mile solo hike virtually makes for a one-woman show.
The dearth of conversational opportunities hardly proves daunting for Hornby, who makes sure the film flows effortlessly and entertainingly. There is the obvious and occasional recourse to flashback to break up the monotony of her trek, sure, yet they do not drive the narrative. In fact, these scenes are among the least effective in “Wild” because they are never quite clear as to why Cheryl decides to take off on this foolish quest in the first place. The past provides the background for the character, just not necessarily the journey.
Hornby firmly decides to center the majority of “Wild” on the trail, highlighting Cheryl’s solitude and introspection. Although he does not shy away from the taxing physical travails, Hornby also finds other angles through which he can explore Cheryl’s trip. Heck, he even finds some absurdity when Cheryl wrangles with her gargantuan backpack that resembles a great silent comedy bit.
No matter what turn Hornby’s script takes, Reese Witherspoon is there with a game face and heart wide open. She may look as if she just walked out of the makeup trailer rather than a ratty, unshowered mess, but her emotions always feel completely authentic. “Wild” marks her most rigorous, least glamorous role this millennium, requiring a reckoning with issues like compulsive promiscuity rather than choosing between two dashing male suitors.
The mistakes made in the wake of personal tragedy litter Cheryl’s life with regret. When she hits the Pacific Coast Trail, she is still reeling from the death of her loving mother Bobbi, played in a very poignant turn by Laura Dern. Because “Wild” takes the time to illustrate the strength of the mother-daughter bond, Bobbi’s passing feels like a suitable spark to set off the powder keg of irrational behavior inside of Cheryl.
She is not so much fleeing this ignominious history as she is sprinting towards a new self, one that she has to forge in nature’s crucible. Along the way, Cheryl slowly finds the self-actualization she seeks, coming to love herself because of every decision she made – not just in spite of a few of them. Witherspoon’s sincerity and sensitivity of spirit enables “Wild” to fully realize this inner reawakening, never allowing it to devolve into some kind of hokey self-help rebirth.
Jean-Marc Vallée could have turned in a serviceable directorial effort, and “Wild” would have still been a worthwhile film on the strengths of Hornby’s writing and Witherspoon’s acting alone. Thankfully, however, he puts his own stamp on the film, largely through the impressionistic editing rhythms he explored in last year’s “Dallas Buyers Club.” Here, they are better orchestrated and more finely tuned to aid his storytelling.
Vallée puts the flash in flashback, showing the influence of the past over the present through brief glances backwards in time. He will often provide a glimpse of a scene, looping a small fragment of it throughout the film only to finally unpack its meaning by letting it play out fully later. Cheryl’s backstory becomes a messily reordered collage in Vallée’s visual representation, and it serves as a lovely metaphor for what “Wild” says as a whole. It does not matter how far-flung the pieces of one’s life are so long as there is willpower and strength to reorder and make peace with them.
“Wild” opens in Winston-Salem this Friday at a/perture. Times & tickets HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.