Sunday, December 21, 2014


 5 / 5 

Wild begins with the sounds of a woman in distress.  Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is somewhere high in the mountains of California on the Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches from the California-Mexico border to the U.S.-Canada border.  Strayed has decided to walk most of it, and the distress and anguish she feels as the movie opens have as much to do with her physical state as her mental one.

She has decided to walk not to seek enlightenment, but to obtain release.  As the film, by Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée and British screenwriter Nick Hornby, gets underway, it proceeds along two parallel paths, telling the linear story of what happens to Strayed along the trail while revealing, slowly, what brought her to the point in her life that bodily suffering would be so vastly superior to emotional turmoil.

Cheryl has found herself so far from any vision she once had of herself that she is lost: Her last name is intentional, self-selected when she divorces from her husband, who has come to her rescue one too many times and cannot live with her anymore.

She wasn't always this way.  Her younger self may have been a little haughty, a tad too judgmental, but only because her mother (Laura Dern) promoted a strong sense of self-confidence.  Her eternally sunny, perpetually chipper mother -- who is well aware of the less-than-ideal state of her life and family -- was the foundation of Cheryl's life; her sudden, grim death at age 45 didn't simply rock Cheryl's world, it destroyed it.

The recitation of the facts leading up to Strayed's 1,000-mile journey may make Wild sound like an earnestly inspirational drama, and while it is undeniably inspiring, that is -- admirably -- not its aim.  Wild goes far deeper into the woods than that.

Deftly balancing gorgeous wilderness photography with satisfying scenes in which Strayed encounters others along her path, Wild is a specific story about a specific kind of grief -- a bone-crushing, soul-piercing grief whose outcome is destructive and tragic.  It descends with a magnificent fury and traps its sufferer.  Wild shows the extraordinary lengths one person goes to to defeat grief's equally extraordinary grip.

Wild is a movie of remarkable clarity, aware of exactly where it wants to head, even in the rare moment it seems unsure of how to get there.  It has a few false steps along the way (particularly its determination to depict some men as leering, sex-addled menaces), but none that distract for more than a moment.  More meaningful and impressive are the moments of sublime fascination, like the wounded fox that may or may not be as real as the fleeting hallucinations of her beloved mother.

While Wild may seem like a one-woman show, in addition to the exquisite, impassioned performance from Witherspoon, it contains some affecting and memorable supporting roles -- not just Dern, an actress whose smiling face always seems to be hiding an unspoken pain, but, in smaller roles, Thomas Sadoski as Strayed's deeply loved ex-husband; and W. Earl Brown as a lonely farmer whose own learnings form the backbone for much of what Strayed discovers herself.

Still, Wild is Witherspoon's movie, and she holds the screen at every turn.  Wild isn't just about her walking on the trail, and the film takes the steel-jawed, ebullient Witherspoon into emotionally stark territory.

Wild gets everything right that last year's All Is Lost got catastrophically wrong.  Strayed's journey is not one of hubris or pride, but of desperate need and intense loneliness.  As she tells another woman she meets along the way, "I feel less lonely out here than I do in the rest of my life."

With a pitch-perfect ending (something more and more movies find harder to pull off lately), Wild is a movie that may be off-putting to some.  It's emotionally brutal -- but also meaningfully specific.  It's Strayed's story, and she's not the easiest of people.  The film steadfastly refuses to make light of her more difficult side, and her behavior toward the end of the film at first surprised me -- and then made me admire her even more.  She may end her walk with more emotional awareness, but she isn't a miraculously changed person.

In that, and in its sometimes wearying physicality and emotional starkness, Wild may not resonate for everybody.  For me, it's the best -- and most affecting -- movie of the year.

Viewed Dec. 21, 2014 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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