As a tale of healing process and self-discovery, “Wild” looks plain and conventional from the very beginning, but it is entertaining to watch mainly because of several strong points which considerably enliven its conventions. Although there is nothing new or fresh in the story itself, the movie earnestly observes its struggling heroine’s long, difficult journey with honesty and sincerity, and its emotional loads are carried well on the back of its solid lead performance.
The movie is based on a real-life story of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who was at the bottom of her life before she decided to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. After her dear mother was suddenly diagnosed of terminal spinal cancer and then died several months later, Cheryl was tumbled into the wild, dark period of sex and drug, and that ultimately ruined the relationship between her and her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), which was another precious thing in her life.
Through Paul’s help and support, Cheryl has recently managed to lift herself up from her bottom, and now she is about to start a 1,100-mile (1,800 km) hike which will begin from the Mojave Desert and then end on the state line of Washington State. This can be very difficult and dangerous for her considering that she will have to go through several remote areas alone, but she really wants to pull herself together through this arduous journey, so she takes the first step into the wild although she is still not quite sure about whether she will succeed in the end.
Of course, the first days are not easy due to her lack of experience. For instance, her backpack turns out to be heavier than she thought, so she struggles for a while as trying to carry it on her back. When she spends her first evening in the wilderness, she belatedly discovers that she bought a wrong gas can for her burner, so she has no choice but to eat cold dinners instead – and it is certainly not easy to sleep alone in the darkness while animal sounds are often heard from the outside of her tent.
As her body gets exhausted every day, Cheryl considers giving up her plan from time to time, but she becomes more determined to keep going on as she advances more along the Pacific Crest Trail, and she also gets some help from others on her route. She meet more experienced hikers who gladly give her some useful advices, and she later learns how to pack up her backpack as little as possible. While receiving the constant support from her ex-husband, she gets more accustomed to several usual difficulties during her hike (they remind me again of why I am not enthusiastic about long-distance hike and other kinds of outdoor activities), and she finds her spirit still intact even after one cringe-inducing moment involved with her bloody toenail.
Nevertheless, her journey in the wilderness is always accompanied with the possibility of sudden danger, and that aspect is exemplified well by a short but tense scene in which Cheryl happens to encounter two suspicious men on one day. This scene only implies what these two guys might think of her, but the sense of possible danger is palpable on the screen as Cheryl understandably becomes more nervous about them.
The director Jean-Marc Vallée, who recently had a notable critical/commercial success with his Oscar-winning film “Dallas Buyers Club” (2013), takes an unobtrusive approach to the story, and the screenplay by Nick Hornby, which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, focuses on small character moments as its episodic narrative leisurely rolls along Chery’s journey. Through its occasional flashback scenes, the movie shows us her close relationship with her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) as well as her destructive fall into despair after her mother’s death, and we come to understand more about her and her urge to restart her life after that dark time of hers.
As it did in many other road movies, the journey itself matters more than the eventual arrival point waiting for Cheryl, and Reese Witherspoon’s unadorned performance conveys well her character’s gradual inner changes to us. Although she may not be wholly believable during the flashback scenes in which her character is hitting her bottom, Witherspoon is more effective instead as her character slowly gains more will and confidence through small and big difficulties on her journey, and she ably carries the film with her performance for which she recently received an Oscar nomination.
Most of the other actors in the film fill their small parts as required while supporting Witherspoon. W. Earl Brown, whom I always remember for his sweet comic supporting role in “There’s Something About Mary” (1998), has a small wonderful moment as a middle-aged guy who turns out to be far different from how he looks at first, and Thomas Sadoski is a decent guy who still cares a lot about his ex-wife as her friend, and the special mention goes to Laura Dern, who fills her thankless role with a warm, haunting presence and accordingly received an Oscar nomination for her neat work.
Although its ending feels a little too abrupt, “Wild” is a good road movie on the whole, and I like the way it takes its time for smoothly delivering its expected life-affirming message without making it feel too overwrought or artificial. While it is not as memorable as other similar films such as Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007) and it is surely safe and conventional to say the least, I enjoyed its intimate drama along with Witherspoon’s likable performance, and it serves us with a journey as good as planned.