Thursday 24 November 2016

Movie Review: Wild (2014)

One woman's literal and figurative journey to painful self-discovery, Wild is an exquisitely constructed drama, capturing the heart and intellect of a struggle to re-calibrate a life gone astray.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) places her life on hold and embarks on a solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000 mile journey from the deserts of California to the Oregon rain forest. Along the way, she confronts her demons, seen in flashback snippets. Cheryl and her brother Leif were raised by their mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), a victim of spousal abuse who had little to offer her children except plenty of love, nurturing and a sunny disposition. Cheryl marries Paul (Thomas Sadoski), but the marriage has fallen apart after she descended into a life of drugs and random sex with strangers. Along the trail Cheryl has brief encounters with a variety of other locals and strangers, some funny and others scary, and pushes through the pain barrier and her own fears and inexperience, seeking to come to terms with her life.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Nick Hornby, Wild is an adaptation of Cheryl Straid's best-selling non-fiction book describing her 1995 hike. The film starts at the Mojave Desert trail head in southern California and ends 94 days later at the border between Oregon and Washington. And while there are plenty of on-trail experiences as the over-equipped but under-trained Cheryl grapples with what it means to live rough day and night, the important events are taking place in her head. Vallée and Hornby shine in opening up Cheryl's psyche, revealing her memories, thoughts, self-doubt and self-castigation through flashback fragments that slowly coalesce to create a picture of a life in need of a serious intervention.

Unlike the intolerably self-indulgent Elizabeth Gilbert in the saccharine Eat Pray Love, Cheryl knows she has messed up in the worst possible way. Her sex and drug addictions have destroyed her marriage and her remaining friends are pleading with her to get a grip. She embarks on the trail to find out what happened to the girl raised by Bobbi on nothing but love and optimism. The answers are not easy, but the film offers up moments of genuine and emotional discovery, driven by little surprises of achievement, fear and anxiety on the hiking trail.

Cheryl meets a gruff farmer who could have been menacing but who proves that looks and first impressions can be deceiving. Other encounters with an initially naked man, another solo woman, and a group of young men are just as enlightening. She encounters hunters who must be descendants of the Deliverance natives, and overcomes jagged rocks, exhaustion, dehydration, ill-fitting hiking boots and deep snow. She is happily stunned to learn that she has outlasted much more experienced hikers on the trail. All the while the memories are churning, the forces that defined her life become clear, and a path to salvation is charted.

Reese Witherspoon delivers a raw, honest performance, finding Cheryl's trauma and staying true to the reality of a woman stoically charting a new course in the company of herself. Laura Dern has a relatively short but pivotal role as her mother Bobbi. With a free and airy performance, Dern conveys what it means to be a perpetual idealist in the service of her children. Both women received Academy Award nominations.

Wild ends with unnecessary and rushed narration that appears too eager to package up Cheryl's story in a neat box. It's an unfortunate tone to conclude her adventure on, because Wild is about the universal human instinct to strike out in anger, in depression and in a mad search for recovery. Good or bad, wild instincts contribute to life, but rarely in an orderly manner.

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