Review: “Wild” (****)

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Reese Witherspoon and her backpack Monster star in “Wild”

“Wild” opens with a shot of gorgeous and serene, snow-capped mountains. We hear a woman gasping for air, breathing as if caught right in the middle of some pretty rigorous sex. This woman, as it turns out, is a hiker arduously laboring her way to a pretty stunning lookout. And it is here that we meet our heroine Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). She removes her backpack called Monster (a rather appropriately named symbol for all the things in her life that weigh her down) from her sweat-drenched and filthy back, takes off her too-small boots, peels off her blood-soaked socks revealing her mangled and blistered feet. She picks and rips off a dead toenail, and in the process, somehow, knocks her shoe off the side of the mountain. In frustration, she hurls the other shoe, full force, into the abyss. She curses at the mountains, screaming her frustrations at the top of her lungs, and it’s this moment that we learn the defiant, grieving, willing-to-make-a-fool-of-herself nature of this woman. Very quickly after that moment, we then get these quick, successive clips: a fox, her mother, her as a girl, her life, the wild. They’re very snappy and colorful and expressive and perfectly capture everything that this film is. Then a quick cut to the title card. It’s a gorgeous introduction to a well-done film.

Penned by writer Nick Hornby (“About A Boy,” “An Education”) and directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), “Wild” brims with a simultaneously strident and silent kind of poetry. I felt imbued with Cheryl’s grief. I felt heavy and sad for her, which I think is a testament to the direction of Valée. With this film, he’s so honed his craft and his art, that he’s able to somehow highlight small, and sometimes hard, details and turn them into huge these emotional moments, and it’s done without apology and sanctimony. She’s grieving the loss of her mother (played by Laura Dern) whom Cheryl claims is the great love of her life, the destruction of her marriage, and her abusive relationship with drugs and men. She’s grieving her complete and total loss of self; her internal compass no longer points North and she’s become someone she can’t imagine being. Every step she takes on this 1,100 mile trek is progress. It’s a chance for her to shed the skin from her previous life. As she walks form Mojave, CA to the Oregon-Washington border, Strayed experiences a renewal of sorts. A baptism in the beauty of the wild. Witherspoon is rather exceptional as Strayed, and I’m hard-pressed to find a role that parallels this kind of gritty exposure from her. She’s fantastically severe and raw.

“Wild,” the 2012 best-selling, autobiographical text by Cheryl Strayed after which this film was inspired and titled, is a very special book for me. I read “Wild” just before I began a cross-country cycling trip; despite our vastly different emotional motivations, I was experiencing similar degrees of mental and physical fatigue, I saw majestic mountains and breath-catching valleys, and I learned what it meant to push myself beyond what I thought I could do. I think the text does a far better job of structuring her adventure; she’s more thoughtful and sharp and expressive. She’s tangled in literature and journals like a madwoman. She detours and labors. She struggles (not just with the heat and snow and food and camping and clothing and bugs and geography but, largely, with carrying this boulder-like guilt and ocean-deep grief) and embraces chance encounters with strangers that are shortened and shallowed in the context of the film. Which, I think, can be said of most text-to-film adaptations; despite the talent involved, something gets lost in the translation.

I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Witherspoon should snag an Oscar nomination with this role.

4 out of 5 stars.

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