Oh, Reese Witherspoon. Even after winning Best Actress for Walk the Line, there’s a superficial kind of rom-com sheen to her career that just won’t seem to shake off. Not that it’s entirely undeserved, of course: Some of her most notable hits include Sweet Home Alabama and the two Legally Blonde films, to say nothing of her naive virginal turn in Cruel Intentions. It’s easy to brush Witherspoon off as just another dime-a-dozen mediocrity with a pretty face, but that’s only if you haven’t seen how she crushed it in such dramatic turns as Mud. Which, sadly, nobody has. But of course, everybody heard about it when This Means War tanked.
Though bless her heart, that hasn’t stopped Witherspoon from persevering. The Good Lie and The Devil’s Knot may have gone nowhere, but she can still claim to have produced the very popular Gone Girl, and she has a Paul Thomas Anderson movie coming up later this year.
But right now we have Wild, which adapts the memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, who spent three months hiking along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave to Portland (where she currently resides) at the age of 26. The adult Cheryl Strayed is played by Witherspoon, who also produces. The child Cheryl Strayed is played by Bobbi Strayed Lindstrom, her real-life daughter.
The movie is told in a non-linear manner, flashing between Cheryl’s west coast hike and the reasons why she’s on that hike to begin with. We meet Cheryl’s mother (Bobbi, played by Laura Dern) and get glimpses of her brief life with an abusive father. We watch as Cheryl and her mother go to college together, we see her mother ride horses, and we watch as her mother dies of cancer. At this point, Cheryl is so overcome by grief that she gets addicted to heroin and fucks random strangers just to dull the pain. This naturally leads to the implosion of her marriage, though Cheryl remains on decent terms with her ex (Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski).
Finally, somewhere between getting pregnant and having an abortion, Cheryl decides that she needs some time to herself. So she flies out to California, buys everything hiking-related that she can think of, and sets out on the PCT with the goal of starting a new life in the fair city of Portland. Keep in mind that Cheryl has never done anything like this. She has no idea of what she’ll really need for a hike, much less a hike of this magnitude. She doesn’t know the geography, she barely knows how to use the equipment she brought along, she’s proven multiple times over that she doesn’t know how to take care of herself, and she’s completely alone in the middle of nowhere. Which makes it all the more satisfying when she learns from her mistakes on the trail and starts to fend for herself quite admirably.
This movie had absolutely everything in place. A great premise, a solid lead actress with everything to prove, and all the gorgeous scenery that the Oregon wilderness could offer (with Central Oregon standing in for the California desert). Yet something about this movie just didn’t click for me. It’s definitely not a bad film, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a good film that falls short of greatness, and I have a hard time putting my finger on precisely why.
I think that part of it is in how Cheryl is a broken person who goes to the wilderness to try and find herself. That’s not a bad thing in itself, it’s just that the movie repeats that fact over and over again. The film spends a lot of time flashing back and forth between Cheryl’s past tragedies and Cheryl’s current nature walk, but it doesn’t focus nearly enough on precisely how Cheryl is developing as a result of this hike. Sure, we watch as Cheryl grows into a more confident outdoorsman, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how this time away from civilization has helped with her emotional baggage. It seems odd how that growth is treated as a foregone conclusion when it’s the very crux of the story.
Some development is there, sure, but the movie could have had so much more thematic depth and worked better as a character drama if the development was explored in greater detail. As an example, I find it sort of implausible that the recovering heroin addict goes through over 100 days of agony and never once wishes that she had some drugs for the pain. Also, Cheryl is a recovering sex addict who crosses paths with several guys on her trail — many of whom openly want to fuck her — and she only has one fling. It seems to me that her restraint should be commended as a step forward, or maybe her one-night stand should be treated as a shameful relapse. Or maybe it’s a sign that she’s finally stopped slut-shaming herself. But no, those episodes just come and go with scarcely any comment or consequence.
Another big problem is Bobbi. I have no problem saying that Laura Dern does a masterful job playing the loving mother figure, but that’s just it. The movie seems to elevate Bobbi to such an angelic status that I couldn’t get a handle on who she really was. Bobbi spends most of her screen time dispensing pearls of wisdom and facing the uncaring world with a smile, with little attention (if any) given to the problems that she was fighting through. Compare this to Christopher Plummer of Beginners or even Colin Farrell of Saving Mr. Banks, both of whom were given much more of an opportunity to establish their characters as fleshed-out human beings, which made the father-child connection much more palpable and their deaths far more poignant. Yet Cheryl’s love for her mother (again, like Cheryl’s character growth itself) is treated as a given. And again, this is a huge problem for something so pivotal to the story.
Between this and Dallas Buyers Club, I notice that director Jean-Marc Valee has a nasty habit for taking complex, nuanced stories, and painting them in broad strokes. And that’s fine, but only up to a point. For instance, Witherspoon does a solid job playing a good-hearted person who wants to get her life back on straight after going through some hard times. But without getting the details of precisely who she is and how this journey is changing her, I’m not seeing a character. I’m only seeing Reese Witherspoon crying and screaming on camera. Sure, it’s good stuff to watch, but not nearly as good as it could have and should have been.
That said, I want to stress emphatically that Wild is not a bad movie. Witherspoon carries the screen with confidence, the visuals are gorgeous throughout, and the basic theme of learning how to pick yourself up and stand on your own two feet is very cleverly expressed. I only wish that the characters and the story had been presented with a bit more nuance, and more attention had been given to Cheryl’s development as a character.
I disagree with the notion that this is one of the year’s best films and I’m sure we can find actresses this year who gave a better performance. Even so, this is absolutely a trip worth taking, especially with Witherspoon and Valee as your guides. Just keep your expectations in check, is all I’m saying.