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Loved the book Wild? The movie version is, surprisingly, almost as good

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the film version of Strayed's memoir Wild.
Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed in the film version of Strayed's memoir Wild.
Fox Searchlight

Even in its best moments, the movie version of Cheryl Strayed's hit memoir Wild is a big hunk of cheese. It's a film that strives and strains for some sort of transcendence and only occasionally gets there.

But it’s a surprisingly moving film experience all the same. Much of that can be laid at the feet of novelist Nick Hornby’s intelligently structured script, which often invites the actors to underplay huge moments, and creates scenes where the tension is less overt than it is implied. What happens when two people meet each other out in the middle of the woods? Will they be friends or foes?

But, by and large, Wild works because of its lead actress, who also optioned the book before it was published in order to turn it into a film. As Strayed, Reese Witherspoon is terrific in a part she should be all wrong for. It’s a great turn, and it’s an even better reminder of when she was one of the most exciting actors in America.

Wild

Cheryl Strayed's (Reese Witherspoon) walk from Mexico to Canada forms the basis of Wild. (Fox Searchlight)

A surprisingly dark tale

Wild follows Cheryl (as played by Witherspoon) as she embarks upon the Pacific Coast Trail, walking from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, in the wake of several bad years that saw the death of her mother, the formation of a drug addiction, and the crumbling of her marriage. She wants to walk herself back to the woman her mother thought she was, even if she’s not precisely sure the process will be at all effective.

The film version of Wild has sanded off some of the book’s rougher edges — perhaps in an attempt to make Cheryl more self-consciously "likable" — but for the most part, both Hornby’s script and Witherspoon’s performance are agreeably willing to go for broke in terms of Cheryl’s sins. She cheated on her husband and became a heroin addict. She did some very dark things in the wake of her mother’s death.

And yet nobody involved in Wild wants to condemn Cheryl as a bad person, to the film’s credit. The overall message of the project seems to be that forgiveness of the self is the single most important thing one can do — and also that acceptance of one’s transgressions can lead to deeper understanding.

Cheryl’s walk takes her from self-loathing to a kind of peace with herself, and outside of a few moments when the film ladles on the feel-good glop (or is undone by poor technical work), Wild is refreshing in how quietly it embraces this journey. There are few major moments of realization or self-discovery here. Instead, Wild is about the quiet that comes in the woods, and how that can give the human brain time to pause and reconsider life.

But, again, this is very nearly a one-woman film. Yes, there are flashbacks to Cheryl’s life before her walk (roughly replicating the book’s elliptical circling of Strayed’s own memories). Yes, she meets up with people on the trail. But there is a lot of watching Witherspoon’s face in this movie, as occasionally cloying voiceover plays. To those who know Witherspoon primarily for her romantic comedies, this might play as a huge break from her typical characters. For the rest of us, it will be a sigh of relief.

Reese Witherspoon: American acting hero

Witherspoon has always been a character actress who somehow became a leading lady. Her best work remains essentially everything she made before Legally Blonde turned her into a megastar, when she was an adventurous actress who wasn’t afraid to play characters who were incredibly hard to like. (Election is probably the foremost example of this, but her early resumé is littered with such parts.)

Wild

Reese Witherspoon allows herself to be much looser on camera than she usually is. (Fox Searchlight)

Wild gives her a chance to tap back into that part of herself. Even if she’s not remarkably convincing playing, say, a heroin addict, she’s a punch to the gut in the scenes where even she seems to feel as if she’s been replaced by a dark doppelganger that refuses to stop making destructive choices. On some level, Wild wants to examine how people occasionally have to burn down everything in their lives to start building again, and Witherspoon sinks her teeth into that material and doesn’t let go. You can see this on her face throughout the movie, which shifts from questioning whether she can do this, to accepting that it’s possible, to being in awe of her own capabilities. It’s subtle, but transformative.

Making this even more impressive is that Witherspoon is, on paper, all wrong for this part. She’s at least five years too old for it (particularly when she’s meant to be playing Cheryl in college), and there’s a kind of vanity that sets in with many stars of her level, where even a project like this is an excuse to burnish the reputation. To play Cheryl requires Witherspoon essentially losing track of herself up on screen, and she’s always been an actress who seems to know exactly which marks to hit and which beats to emphasize.

But she manages the task all the same, and the resulting looseness of her work is what makes the film effective. She’s surrounded with good scene partners, too, whether Laura Dern as her mother and Thomas Sadoski as her ex-husband in flashbacks, or W. Earl Brown and Cliff De Young as people she meets along the trail, all too briefly. This could all feel like pretentious "find thyself" crap, but Witherspoon taps into the earnestness of it all, and everybody else in the cast is only too happy to come along for the ride.

Wild

Laura Dern plays Cheryl's mother in Wild. (Fox Searchlight)

Problems with direction

The film’s flaws largely stem from its direction. Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed last year’s Oscar hopeful Dallas Buyers Club (a largely bad film), has always favored the impressionistic when it comes to filmmaking, choosing to offer up brief brushstrokes of a larger picture before giving us the whole. That approach suits Wild just fine in places, but it also creates scenarios where he’ll overlap many, many different elements in collages that lack centers, or where he’ll haphazardly layer on Witherspoon’s voiceover (often the film’s weakest element).

Both Vallée and Hornby are careful to use flashbacks not to suggest that Cheryl is the way she is because of certain events in her life (a cause-effect relationship that would play as too simplistic), but that also occasionally leaves them struggling to find ways to drag those flashbacks into the story, which results in more filmmaking via collage.

To be sure, there are moments when Vallée earns this approach, particularly in the film’s closing passages. And it allows for a more muted take on this material than, say, Witherspoon breaking down over a campfire to tell someone her life story. It’s just that so much of Wild is so sure of itself that these wrong steps become weird slips off the trail, ones that detract from the overall picture of memory, regret, and healing the movie aims to express elsewhere.

Still, Wild is worth seeing for how thoroughly it’s willing to push against both the kind of film it is and the kind of performance we expect its star to give. And even when that’s not working, there’s the great blank canvas of the American west. Cheryl goes there to both lose and find herself, but it’s too easy to boil her journey down to that. Instead, Wild says, we go out into nature to remember some part of who we once were, still hidden somewhere in our DNA.

Wild is already playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in select other cities Friday and will continue to expand to other cities throughout the month. Check the release schedule here.

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