Dec. 9 2014 05:54 PM

New biopic about Cheryl Strayed is a melancholy, thorny look at isolation and redemption

Reese Witherspoon, on a quest

If you've spent any prolonged time outdoors, sequestered from the incessant buzzing of man-made noise, Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild offers a lovely reminder of nature's remedying effect. Based on the novel by Cheryl Strayed, a forlorn and embattled young woman who took to hiking the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 1994 with hopes of leaving her demons of addiction behind, the film seeks to reclaim a sense of peacefulness that has become nearly extinct these days. Momentarily disrupting this process are the men Cheryl meets along the way; some help, others ominously stare and casually threaten and all interrupt the journey at hand.

But Wild doesn't consider itself a feminist version of Walden; instead Vallée's portrait examines what it looks like to be lost in a number of different ways. Cheryl functions as a vehicle for actor Reese Witherspoon to grapple with the character's failures free of societal pressures. During the early portions of the film, wordless flashbacks fire in succession like synapses, providing images of conflict that fill in the gaps of Cheryl's past. Serial infidelity led to heroin use and down a dark rabbit hole of self-doubt, which has become amplified by the death her mother (Laura Dern).

Starting with little to no survivor training and far too much gear near the Mexican border, Cheryl slowly but surely makes her way north. She experiences isolation and extreme discomfort while moving through the Mojave Desert, highlighted by sporadic internal monologues that transcend the familiarity usually associated with voice-over narration. To hear Cheryl chastise herself and then experience something exhilaratingly personal feels unabashedly true to the volatility of the experience. Screenwriter Nick Hornby uses these moments to flesh out the character's sense of humor, literary prowess and desperate spirit. 

During Cheryl's time on the trail, minor victories get amplified to reflect their importance removed from the comforts of society. Major climaxes include eating hot mush for the first time, securing a pair of hiking boots that fit and erecting a tent without struggle. Yet all of these transitions mark a beginning to a specific moment and not the end. Even if surprise and danger waits around every bend, Cheryl's mastery of the trail itself becomes quietly maudlin in a way that can only occur for someone who's fully dedicated to life off the grid.  

Wild wonderfully suggests that finding yourself is not a series of grand realizations or epic turning points but an appreciation for the hypnotic silence of any give moment, be it deep in the woods or looking out a window onto a bustling city street. We tend to fill every single waking second with something task-related, but Witherspoon's performance frees us from that obligation. The film's theme of "finding your best self" is not a dramatic crescendo but a protracted series of reflections that feel daringly breezy, incomplete and personal. 

Vallée's tendency to simplify complex psychological experiences has made his last two films (2011's Café de Flore and 2013's Dallas Buyer's Club) nearly unbearable to watch. Thankfully, he gives Witherspoon the space necessary to inhabit Cheryl removed from the pandering Oscar-friendly resolutions that normally infect this type of biopic fare. Hers is an exposed, vulnerable turn that grows with power as the film traverses northward into the California mountain ranges and Oregon forests. The accumulation of experiences, both for the character and the viewer, add up to something profound, something shared.

It's interesting to think that Wild's greatest theme revolves around the idea of being self-sufficient, not just physically but mentally, as well. With so many elements of everyday life distracting us from genuine internal contemplation, how can it even be possible? Wild, which opens Friday, Dec. 12, audaciously frames this question as an intimate and thorny unspoken discourse between a complex character and the audience that's watching her every move. Happy trails.

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