Jean-Marc Vallée follows up The Dallas Buyer’s Club with Wild, another strong, urgent, raw piece of filmmaking that offers an Oscar-nominated turn for its lead actor, in this case Reese Witherspoon. Witherspoon, who has never been less than excellent in anything, plays real-life Normal Person (as opposed to Sniper, Billionaire Murderer, Brilliant Mathematician, Civil Rights Leader or Other Brilliant Mathematician) Cheryl Strayed, who, in order to cleanse her suffering from her mother’s death and subsequent divorce, undertook hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail and then wrote a book about it.
Just as Bradley Cooper bought the rights to American Sniper and took them all the way to an Oscar nomination, so too did Witherspoon buy the rights to Strayed’s book, and she’s found a terrific collaborator in Vallée, but also in the (I find) surprising choice of screenwriter in Nick Hornby. I suspect this book was a tough nut to crack, but the method the men have chosen works. Essentially, the film glides poetically and constantly from Strayed’s hike to the life she’s walking off (or away from), and while the hike is generally portrayed in a forward linear fashion, the past comes in snatches and bits, and not linearly, but as Strayed remembers them. Thus an encounter with condensation on the roof of her tent may drive a memory of her mother in hospital, and so on.
It may sound whiny, self-help-y or new-age-y, and maybe it is a little, but it’s handled with great care (and toughness). I was entranced and engaged from start to finish and really sad to leave the world, into the weird, cold reality of the shopping mall housing the cinema. Strayed’s interior journey – the parts of her mind she needs to reconcile – is a rough road, and the hike is a goddamned killer, but she, and those she remembers, and the scenery around her, are all beautiful, and it’s this juxtaposition of, dare I say it, beauty and sadness that works so well. It is a very similar film, in many ways, to Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, but this time it’s about a woman, which actually makes it completely different. Witherspoon, need I say, is simply excellent in every scene. Highly recommended.