****WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME (MINOR) SPOILERS!! YOU HAVE BEEN OFFICIALLY WARNED****
Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), is a film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir of self-discovery "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". Nick Hornby adapted the book for the screen. In the story, Strayed is compelled to hike the very formidable Pacific Crest Trail from southern California up to Washington state in order to heal herself and purge her demons after the death of her mother, years of drug use and promiscuity, and a divorce. The story is told from Cheryl Strayed's perspective and follows her on her physical journey, including her mental and emotional fluctuations while on that journey, all the while peppered with flashbacks of her life leading up to the decision to trek.
Reese Witherspoon stars in the film as Cheryl Strayed. This is the best performance of Reese Witherspoon's career, without question. It isn't easy for an actress of her status to dirty themselves up and expose themselves, both literally and figuratively, in a film like this. But she dives in head first and roles around in the muck and the mire, embracing the grit and grime of the character and her journey. She should be applauded for her courage if nothing else, but the performance deserves applause for more than just it's courage. Witherspoon's usual appealing persona is not removed from her portrayal, but it is channelled and contained enough to give her character the right amount of vibrancy and charm that encourages us to follow her through the story without making her unreal, phony or too Hollywood. This is the 'most genuine' Witherspoon has ever felt on camera. She still maintains that trademark radiant energy of hers which made her a star, but it is sullied enough that she is able to create a distinct, specific and conflicted character, one that we might actually come across while out in the world somewhere. Reese Witherspoon's performance is undeniably the driving force of the film, and I am sure she will receive, at the least, a well-deserved Oscar nomination. I genuinely hope that in the future she will take on more challenging roles in more interesting films like she has this year with Wild and Inherent Vice.
Besides Witherspoon's performance, the most interesting aspect of the film to me, and what it does incredibly well, is to perfectly capture the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability a woman can experience out alone in a world filled with men. This is a thought I rarely, if ever, contemplate. It was such an interesting insight to me, to be able to not only understand that experience intellectually, but to actually feel it, which is a credit to both Vallee's direction and to Reese Witherspoon's powerful and appealing performance. Without the Witherspoon's trademark natural charm, there is a chance the Cheryl character would not be as easy to connect with, and that would undermine this forceful aspect of the film. The tangible feeling whenever Cheryl comes into contact with men while in the wild, is one of predator and prey. Men are the predators, with their different tactics and strategies, and Cheryl is the prey. Her vulnerability is palpable in these situations. Even if the men aren't always trying to prey upon her, she certainly feels as if they are, and the audience feels it right along with her. This was a really eye-opening and transformational experience for me watching the film. In real life, I'm a large mammal, and so I never really have that experience of vulnerability. That is not to say that I am never in the position of being prey, but it is to say, regardless of situation, I never feel like prey, but with Wild, and Reese Witherspoon's work in it in particular, I was able to have that experience. It is a credit to the filmmaker and the actress that they were able to expand my horizons in such a way that I will be able to be much more empathetic and understanding of people who have that very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability on a much more regular basis.
Watching Wild, I was reminded of one of my favorite films, the 1986 Roland Joffe film, The Mission, which is set in 18th century South America, where Robert DeNiro's character must carry his 'baggage', the heavy armor and weapons he used to kill his brother in a fit of jealousy, tied to his back as he hikes and climbs the Andes under the supervision of Jesuit missionaries. The carrying of the weapons on the arduous climb is his penance for his sins and the vehicle for his spiritual transformation. Wild is not as great a film as The Mission, but it is a good film with similar lessons to teach. Strayed makes a less arduous but equally dramatic pilgrimage as DeNiro's character does in The Mission, and carries all of her literal and figurative 'luggage' with her on the way. The lesson Strayed learns on the journey is to slowly, but surely, release the emotional baggage from her past, and to free herself of the burdens her mistakes and misdeeds weigh upon her. As in The Mission, Strayed's journey in Wild is for spiritual transformation and psychological catharsis.
The power of a journey or quest, whether it be for wisdom, penance, transformation or catharsis, resonates with us all. At one time or another we have all had to make the journey, be it actual or symbolic, or more likely, both. Whether that journey be out of the womb or the slow march to the tomb, or anything in between, we evolve a little or a lot with every step we take on it. Mankind's myths speak to the universality of the power of the journey, whether it be the quest for the holy grail, Homer's odyssey, or Christ's tortuous march to Golgotha. The 'journey myth' speaks to us on levels we can both enjoy as entertainment and yet also psychologically in ways we are not able to intellectualize, verbalize or quite grasp . The 'journey myth' takes hold in, and works upon, both the collective and our personal sub-conscious. The history of film is riddled with the journey myth in the form of the 'road picture', from Hope and Crosby to Easy Rider to Rainman to Little Miss Sunshine to name but a few. Wild is not quite to the level of those films, but it is a road picture that takes us off the road and into the wild and out of our, and Reese Witherspoon's, comfort zone. It is far from a perfect film, but it is a journey well worth your time, if for no other reason than to contemplate your own transformational journey, and to see Reese Witherspoon at her most genuine.
FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , WHIPLASH , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .