starring Reese Witherspoon, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Laura Dern
screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on the novel by Cheryl Strayed
directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
by Walter Chaw Wild is exactly what you think it will be and is that for what feels like forever. It's the inspirational true story of smack-addicted party girl Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who, after reading a lot of well-known volumes of collected verse, cleans out an REI store and sets out to walk the PCT up the Western coast. And she likes Snapple. Yeah, it's a commercial about regaining white privilege after trying to give it away, complete with more rapey moments than expected. That's not fair: Cheryl doesn't so much give her privilege away as indulge in the perks of it to the point where a trio of hale, happy-go-lucky trail-bums dub her the "Queen of the PCT" for all the favours and special treatment she receives along the way. It also takes time for Cheryl to thank REI for being her most favouritist corporation ever for replacing her faulty boots, so that happened.
Seems Cheryl's sainted mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) dies of sudden cancer, turning Tracy Flick into Vanessa Lutz for a while and sending her on a journey of self-discovery. Sure it's trite, but it's true, goddammit. It's all executed in an easy, autumnal, piano-in-minor-key-tinkling middlebrow gloss, a story about pulling oneself up by the literal bootstraps (REI™) that is the irresistible cheese baiting this awards season's prestige trap. Witherspoon is very good, for what it's worth, finding nuance in the middle of all that score, not to mention director Jean-Marc Vallee's atrocious instincts and continued transformation into Ron Howard. She appears to be retracing the Meg Ryan blueprint of following a public Q-rating plummet with gritty roles, nudity and all. The shame of it is that while Meg's own Wild, Jane Campion's In the Cut, is a gorgeous movie that takes real chances and is directed by a woman to boot, Witherspoon's Wild is tame enough to maybe actually give her a second act to her career. She might have a minor hit on her hands with Wild--the version of Eat Pray Love that people see voluntarily.
Anyway, Wild has the scenes where Cheryl makes mistakes early on that almost kill her Into the Wild-style (if Into the Wild had no consequences) and befriends a spirit fox in an unintentional-I-think homage to Clive Barker's beautiful Sacrament; and she suffers more poignant flashbacks than a Peter Fonda convention. It seems the source of Cheryl's pre-penitent trudge (a lot is made of the body-mortification of such a trip, from friction burns to blister to toenail violence) is grief over her very, very well-remembered mother. Dern banks heavily here on her natural charm and effervescence in a role that's essentially an inspirational platitude dispenser, geeking out heartbreaking-in-the-rearview nuggets with machine regularity. To drive the pathos home, Vallee engineers everything towards maximum They Shoot Horses, Don't They? nobility in the face of crippling masochism (horse and all). The nadir comes when a future-castrati child Cheryl meets after finding his Llama (it's a true story, goddammit) sings a piping rendition of "Red River Valley" to her, thus allowing her to finally exorcise the ghosts of her past and become "the woman my mother thought I was." As catharsis triggers go, I'll allow that it's novel to pull the heavenly choir into diegesis. Wild's not a bad movie, it's just not a brave one. For a film that's essentially about courage, that's really too bad.