Director Jean-Marc Vallée might have the golden touch.
By Noah Gittell
Director Jean-Marc Vallée might have the golden touch. Last year, he sparked the “McConaissance” by directing Matthew McConaughey to a career-altering, Oscar-winning performance in “Dallas Buyers Club.” This year, he is poised to do the same thing for Reese Witherspoon, who has similarly been languishing in mediocre romantic comedies for the last decade and now shines in Vallée’s “Wild,” a soul-searching adventure drama and one of the year’s best films.
Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a thirty-something divorcee who leaves her troubled life behind to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. It would be a challenge for any hiker – the Pacific Crest is one of the most unforgiving trails in America – but Strayed is far from an experienced hiker. Her rookie mistakes are painful to watch – she loses a shoe in the film’s first scene – but her defining trait is perseverance, and we know from the beginning that she’ll succeed simply because she’s not a quitter.
The role is a natural fit for Witherspoon, who has always had pluck.
From her early days as Tracy Flick in “Election” to her Oscar-winning performance as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line,” the stick-to-itiveness of her characters runs the gamut from admirable to pathological, but this is her first complete performance. In the past, her gumption has been played either for laughs or to communicate a guarded inner life, but as Strayed, Witherspoon creates a multi-dimensional character who uses her determination to break down those very walls and re-discover herself. She conveys the pain of her journey with a raw, naked physicality, and it leads the way towards a startling emotional transformation.
While Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby keep the focus on Strayed’s present, they give us glimpses of her past traumas and the various demons that kept her true self at bay. It is nothing we have not seen before onscreen: an abusive father, a sick mother, sex, drugs, and violence, but Laura Dern and Thomas Sadoski (of HBO’s “The Newsroom”) bring her mother and ex-husband, respectively, to life with a few deeply-felt flourishes, while Vallée slowly reveals the full scope of her traumas with expert precision. It is easy to see how the hardships she encounters on the trail – bad weather, wild animals, and flavorless food — pale in comparison to what she has left behind. Or as she tells a fellow traveler, “I feel more lonely in my real life than I do out here.”
Her solitude is not just a key driver of the film’s plot – it’s also essential to its themes. It is rare for Hollywood to champion a film featuring a woman who does not in some way rely on men; “Wild” seems designed as a correction. Strayed leaves behind her complicated relationships and finds herself on the trail, an independent woman. Instead of replaying her past traumas with men, she forces herself to create new patterns and forge a new path. Make no mistake: despite having a male director and screenwriter, “Wild” is a feminist text. Its political messaging is rooted in Strayed’s strong personal journey, but its values are earned, and it never feels didactic. In other words, it shows instead of telling.
It also sees her journey through to the end and raises the right questions. As Strayed nears the completion of her journey, she worries about what awaits her at the end. Will she be able to re-enter society? Will her old problems resurface, and how will she handle them with her newfound wisdom? A more provocative film might have had her stay in the woods, leaving the things of man behind for good. But her journey – and the film itself – is more like the world’s most satisfying vacation, trading sunscreen and cocktails for solitude, pain, and ultimately self-affirmation. It’s a journey worth taking.
My Rating: See it in the theater