Reese Witherspoon has gone Wild, and, IMHO, she couldn’t be better.
OK. It would be beyond-lazy to say that the actress hasn’t been this good since her Academy Award-winning turn in 2005’s Walk the Line (I rather thought that she supported last year’s Mud quite well), but as we know – as director Jean-Marc Vallée demonstrates with this film – the truth is what the truth is, no matter how much we should hope otherwise.
And the truth at the heart of Wild is one full of grief. This is the story of a bereavement so powerfully deep it altered someone’s life almost irreparably. This kind of material demands a level of understanding and attention for which Witherspoon’s own path, ever so full of ups and downs, clearly has been good preparation. It is evident from the instant she appears on screen that she feels this grief.
Nay, as Cheryl Strayed, a Minnesota woman who in 1994 went on a 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert up the Pacific Crest Trail to the Oregon-Washington border looking to find herself anew following the tragic loss of her mother, Bobbi, she lives it. And she fills the screen – and us – with it.
Strayed wrote a memoir published in 2012 that became an Oprah Book Club 2.0 pick, and, well...here we are.
And good for us.
Cheryl, you see, was super-tight with her mom, radiantly played by Laura Dern (a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). A free, ebullient spirit, Bobbi treasured her daughter and her son, Leif, but it is obvious from the narrative at play that Cheryl was the apple of her eye. Bobbi wanted her to have the world, which is why she left their abusive dad as soon as she could and willfully raised her kids alone, sacrificing her own fulfillment for theirs. It hurt, she reveals, but it was worth it, for it made her/them rich in love.
Vallée spins the yarn of Wild, which was written – to engrossing effect – by the novelist-cum-Oscar-nominated-screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education), by taking us on the road with Cheryl and sprinkling fragmented flashbacks of her life as she makes her way. Like an onion that is being methodically peeled, the story unfolds over the course of Cheryl’s journey and lets us in on her pain and motivation for going on this walkabout.
As she walks the trail/back to herself, we get insights into her struggling family’s past, into Bobbi’s terminal diagnosis, into the deterioration of her own marriage to a man who still very much cares about her (Thomas Sadoski), into to her promiscuity, and into her progressive heroin use. She didn’t hit the road on a whim or on a lark; she seemingly already had conquered her addiction before she got goin’, and she definitely didn’t do it for the fun of it.
She was adrift. She lost track of herself when Bobbi died, and the pain that she felt was so overwhelming that she could only dull it by being unkind to herself and, thus, to those around her. Step by step, the road opened Cheryl to life again; each of the people she encountered (including a hunky dude played by Michiel Huisman) reminding her that it is worth pushing through for and, more importantly, living.
On her shoulders, Witherspoon carries the weight of not only a monstrous literal pack of s--- along the way but also that of a figurative lifetime of pain and sorrow with an unflinching determination to make Cheryl compellingly relatable. One could argue that up until the point before she started walking, Cheryl had been a drama queen about her loss, that no matter how close she’d been to Bobbi there was no valid reason to bring herself to the brink of self-destruction. That she’d been dishonoring her.
But that’s the thing about grief: it is an untamable thing, and that’s what makes Wild such a well-calibrated study of it.
My Rating ****