Last year, Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée made a major impact in the U.S. with the Oscar nominated drama Dallas Buyers Club. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the filmmaker’s work North of the border could see that as a bit of a departure for the man behind Café de Flore and C.R.A.Z.Y., but it was still successful enough to get him the job making the Reese Witherspoon starring Wild for a major studio. While still a thoughtful American crowd pleaser, though, Wild – based on the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed – marks a welcome return to form for those who missed Vallée’s more distinct authorial voice; the one thing curiously absent from Dallas Buyer’s Club. Beautiful, emotional, lyrical, musical, and at times even psychedelic, this is one of the filmmaker’s best efforts, and he’s helped immensely by Witherspoon giving one of the best leading performances of the year.
In her early 30s and at a major crossroads in her life, Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) has a lot of shit to figure out. Her mother and closest confidant (Laura Dern, glimpsed in flashbacks) has unexpectedly passed away. She isn’t particularly close to her brother or her husband. She self medicates with drugs and sex with random strangers just to get through the day. Afraid of the future and boasting a mindset that dangerously toes the line between self-improvement and self-destruction, Cheryl makes a plan to hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail to Oregon on her own.
While some might scoff and determine the film’s constant fluctuating between the past and present as a manipulative stylistic choice (set in typical Vallée fashion to a killer soundtrack of recognizable pop hits), the structure actually conveys the material’s perfectly conflicted tone wonderfully. Cheryl isn’t a perfect person, and while her journey takes her through some of the most gorgeous landscapes in North America (captured gorgeously by the eye of Quebecois cinematographer Yves Bélanger, who nails every shot in the film spectacularly) she sees her life as something ugly; something that needs to be forgotten about. The film isn’t so much about the journey itself as it’s about her internal struggle to forgive and forget the things she can’t change or take back.
Cheryl’s present situation is her vision quest. She has reached a breaking point, and there are few writers better at adapting such material than novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, An Education). Hand in hand with Vallée, Witherspoon, and Strayed, he has created as lush a character as the surroundings she finds herself in. A flawed humanist and feminist, Cheryl has a real degree of agency and inner strength. Sometimes she trusts her instincts. Sometimes she’s obstinate regarding her own bad decisions in the past and present equally. She’s unafraid to be wrong, unencumbered by a need to be right all the time. She has regrets, but doesn’t apologize. She’s sex positive, but realizes that she has made errors in judgment. She wants to trust people, but she almost doesn’t trust herself enough to fully reciprocate kindness. She’s a good person who has become so depressed that she thinks she’s a terrible person. She wants to be alone, but her own nature compels her to stay as close to them as she can at every step of her trip that allows it.
Witherspoon makes the most of Hornby and Strayed’s material delivering the most assured and effortless performance of her career. Every line, gesture, mannerism, and reaction feels unrehearsed and reactionary; the result of a life lived on the edge and largely without fear. It makes sense that Cheryl could be jubilant one moment and crashing down seconds later in a puddle of screaming tears thanks to internal and external forces. As the Cheryl of the past, Witherspoon questions how the character is surviving. As the Cheryl of the present, she questions how the character was even able to live to this point. The way Witherspoon interacts with her co-stars perfectly conveys a headstrong woman who somehow only constructs tenuous relationships to keep people at arm’s length. Hornby and Vallée also refuse to spell out some of the more upsetting moments of Strayed’s life (although many of the flashbacks are pretty graphic despite being brief and purposefully uncomfortable), but Witherspoon can convey an entire past here with a single glance. It’s nothing short of remarkable how she can make a character’s thought process known with a simple tentative greeting directed at another person.
Closest in temperament to Café de Flore, Vallée once again tells the story of flawed people searching for their place in the world in an almost time travelling kind of way. The two films follow similar paths, but Wild does a better job of staying grounded and never giving into any kind of metaphorical or artistic philosophizing about Strayed’s mindset outside of giving her a sort of spirit animal that she talks back to in a few well handled, fleeting moments. It’s a grounded work that tries to take on the enormity of a fully rounded, imperfect life. It’s emotional power is almost relentless, and while the film feels appropriately as draining as a great hike, there’s something to be gleaned from all of it. It’s affecting in some of the best possible ways.