Film Review: Wild (★★★)

wild_ver3Slowly but surely, it seems like director Jean-Marc Vallee is becoming a bit of an Oscar whisperer. Dallas Buyers Club was a bigger Academy player than initially expected, which now has him in the position of whatever he makes having an awards buzz about it. As such, Wild was tipped as a potential player from the get go, perhaps to its own detriment (if nowhere else than in my mind). Luckily, Vallee has the lead performance of Reese Witherspoon here, so at least in that regard, the Oscar talk is warranted. Witherspoon (and co-star Laura Dern as well) delivers work that’s perhaps even better than the film deserves. This is definitely a solid picture, but it’s never anything more than solid, outside of those performances. There isn’t anything explicitly wrong with Wild, but as I half jokingly said on Facebook/Twitter after seeing it, I liked the movie better when it was called Into the Wild and had a bit grittier of a feel. That was a more compelling work overall (it’s actually my number one title of that year), though this is still a more than decent work. It’s recommendation worthy, mainly for Dern and Witherspoon, but the talents of everyone involved make for a solid film. As long as you’re not expecting a masterpiece, there’s enough in Wild to make for an enjoyable viewing experience. Don’t go in demanding to be blown away, that’s for sure. Just sit down ready to watch Witherspoon do top notch work and consider anything else to more or less be a bonus. That’s the most fruitful way to enjoy this one. Not a particularly enthusiastic recommendation, I know, but it’s a recommendation nonetheless.

The film is a chronicle of the real life trek that Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) made on the Pacific Crest Trail. The 1,100 mile trek was made by Strayed on her own, with minimal training, during a crisis point in her life. She’s dealt with drug addition, the crumbling of her marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and most devastatingly, the death of her mother Bobbi (Dern). Strayed had lost all hope at that point, but was incapable of continuing the destructive path that her life was on. So, almost on a whim, she sets out to hike the trail alone. When the flick begins, she’s frustrated and all but ready to give up. As she goes forth on the path though, she meets all sorts of folks and begins to find herself, all the while flashing back on the times she spent with her mother, as well as some of her lowest points with her best friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann). At different moments, she’s crippled by pain, anxiety, or depression, but at other points she’s almost overwhelmed by the beauty and freedom she’s witnessing. In the end, that 1,100 mile form of therapy would help her recover from catastrophe and begin Strayed on a different path. Obviously, this would eventually lead to her writing the memoir that the movie itself is based on, so you know there’s a happy ending. As such, this is about the journey more so than the destination. We often say that about similar types of works, but in this case, it’s especially too.

1405091448_reese-witherspoon-zoomEverything you’ve heard about Reese Witherspoon in this movie is completely accurate. Give or take her work in Election and Walk the Line, this is the best that she’s ever been. There’s a quiet fierceness to this performance that captivates you throughout. Emotionally and physically naked at multiple junctures, Witherspoon lets go of any and all vanity in order to do justice to Strayed’s life. It’s an incredibly good performance and a complete success. Also doing strong work is Laura Dern, though the nature of the film’s editing does take away some of the power of that work. Dern is great, don’t get me wrong, but each individual moment with her is more limited than I would have preferred. Their scenes together are some of the best that the film has to offer. Both Gaby Hoffman and Thomas Sadoski are solid but underused, while the supporting cast also includes W. Earl Brown, Michiel Huisman, Kevin Rankin, Brian Van Holt, and others. Throughout though, it’s Witherspoon that blows you away.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee is going for a slightly flashier directorial style here than last time out in Dallas Buyers Club, though the end result is slightly more mixed with Wild. At certain points, Vallee is able to take the emotion that was inherent in Strayed’s memoir as well as Nick Hornby‘s adaptation and evoke it with immediacy. At other times though, Vallee distracts from the quieter tone that Hornby was shooting for. Once again, Vallee is aces with her cast, but the more ambitious editing and visual flourishes sometimes take away from it all. It’s not a huge deal, but it was noticeable to me. The other issue for me was the ending, which feels too abrupt, but perhaps Hornby (who otherwise delivers a good script) and Vallee wanted to leave you wanting more of Strayed.

Awards wise, I think the only safe bet is Witherspoon in Best Actress. I’m sure that Wild isn’t out of the Best Picture race, but it’s not one of the most likely nominees either. The same goes for Vallee in Best Director. If voters are really fond of the film, it’s possible that Dern and Hornby could slip in as well, in Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay, respectively. They’re definite possibilities, but right now, I’m only confident about Witherspoon in Actress. It’s not out of the question that this one builds to more acclaim like Vallee’s last film, but I wouldn’t bet the farm on that either.

Overall, Wild is a good yet far from great true life coming of age drama that has the good fortune to feature a nomination worthy turn from Witherspoon. Fans of her work will be thrilled, while I imagine that fans of Strayed’s book will be pretty satisfied as well. Those of you hoping to find a major awards player might wonder if that’s all there is with this one, but it’s still worth your time. Even if Wild never becomes something deserving of major adoration, it’s a film you can easily find appealing. Particularly if you’re an Oscar completist, you real do have to make time for this one.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!