Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild is the film that, perhaps more than any other in 2014, typifies the majority of output during Oscar season. It’s got an edge, but never dares to really test its audience. It leaves us with a message of inspiration that feels largely unearned by the rest of the film. Most importantly, it’s a generally mediocre script (written by Nick Hornby) held up by brilliant central performances from Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. This puts it in the same camp as this year’s Into the Woods and Unbroken and last year’s Dallas Buyers Club (also directed by Vallée) and August: Osage County, which, whilst making for an impressive series of individual parts, doesn’t coalesce into something particularly worthwhile in this most competitive of seasons.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, upon whose memoir Wild is based, a woman who, after a series of tragedies, both self-inflicted and uncontrollable, decides that she needs to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1000-mile walk between the US borders of Mexico and Canada. Whether she seeks redemption or oblivion is never fully clear, and there are hints that she hopes the trek will kill her. She lost her mother (Dern) to cancer and destroyed her own marriage through frequent drug use and anonymous sex in disused warehouses. These defining life moments are shown through hallucinatory flashbacks, often more effective and evocative than the primary story of the walk itself.
Strayed is far from a likable protagonist. As a younger woman (the process of making Witherspoon look college-age is astonishingly convincing), she is too cynical and, although much of this behaviour can be attributed to the crushing trauma of her mother’s death, her wilful betrayals of her husband (Thomas Sadoski) are never fully redeemed. This, combined with the lack of any solid story beyond the completion of the trail, makes it hard to remain engaged with Cheryl’s journey for the film’s entirety. Reese Witherspoon gives an incredible performance, displaying stubbornness, strength, and a tangible vulnerability, but as hard as she works, the script lets her down in that the purpose of her hike – to achieve some sort of self-discovery – has no gradual build. The entire emotional journey is explained away in a clunky voiceover, betraying Wild’s main problem – that it is underwritten. Whilst Cheryl’s backstory is cleverly handled, the rest of the film relies too much on the ability of its star and the sweeping landscapes she finds herself in.
Much like his earlier Dallas Buyers Club (which netted Oscars for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto), Jean-Marc Vallée has delivered a film with really exceptional lead performances that elevate it from just being ‘ok’. Witherspoon is as good as, if not better than, she has ever been, and Laura Dern is heartrending as Bobbi Strayed, with the rest of the cast, none of whom are big stars, memorable in the small amount of screen time they all get. The vistas are constantly spectacular and the exploration of Cheryl’s past is particularly well-done, but the character arc is poorly spread across the film, letting down the luminescent star of the show.