Wild: Witherspoon’s epic journey of discovery

Reese Witherspoon is due a good performance. The last time she gave one, let’s be honest, was as June Carter in Walk The Line in 2005. Since then she’s been coasting a little with below par rom-coms and the like.

However that’s water under the bridge now, or snow down the mountain, whatever wilderness phrase you care to use; for with Wild she gives a raw, real, stripped back and unflinchingly honest performance in this true tale, based on the memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Witherspoon plays Cheryl, a woman who has had an altogether bad lot in life. Following the rather sudden and early death of her mother (Laura Dern) as well as a messy divorce, she tries to numb the pain with drugs and meaningless sex (don’t we all?), but realises the only way to come out the other side of her grief is to ‘put yourself in the way of beauty’, as her mother puts it. So she opts to hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail to rediscover who she is and come to terms with her grief and self-loathing.

Following Dallas Buyers Club in 2013 Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee has delivered a one-two punch on his filmography in the last couple of years, drawing incredibly honest and affecting performances from his leads – McConaughey in Dallas and Witherspoon here.

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He directs in a languid, unhurried style, with confidence in his script (penned by author Nick Hornby) and lead actress. Cheryl’s journey up the PCT covers over 1000 miles and is mostly slow plodding, so as an audience we need some respite. Vallee gradually builds up a picture of Cheryl and why she’s taken on this life-defining challenge by giving us regular flashbacks to her past, which play out like a pleasant fever dream (if there is such a thing), like casting your mind back to a perfect summer’s day as a kid.

Whilst clearly painful to relive these memories, Cheryl is being driven along by a deep, almost unfathomable love for her mother, played superbly by Dern (who herself brings a vitality and vulnerability to a relatively small role). Vallee allows many scenes to take place wordlessly, or with little dialogue, letting us think and feel as an audience. With so many modern movies spoonfeeding emotions the filmmakers would like us to feel, it’s a refreshing approach for a director to treat the audience with this level of mutual respect.

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As a result this is one of those films where you can expect to be saddened, touched, uplifted and delighted. It has lighter moments peppered throughout (a particularly amusing hitchhiking encounter with a journalist is one to watch out for), as well as some incredibly tender moments (one where a young child sings Cheryl a song will probably have you getting a bit misty-eyed).

Moreover, the character of Cheryl is an interesting one… it’s clear why Witherspoon was drawn to the part. It’s the sort of challenging role you could see Jennifer Lawrence playing, as it’s a bit like her character in Winter’s Bone. However she’s in so much these days that it’s good it went to someone else.

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And Witherspoon is nigh on perfect for Cheryl. She’s one tough cookie, yet achingly vulnerable underneath it all. Physically she really laid herself bare. This is no ‘let’s slap a bit of fake Hollywood dirt on her’ approach, she really looks like she’s been hiking in the outdoors for months. An engrossing performance, made all the more poignant by the fact that it’s a true tale.

They do say that you can’t beat real life for the best stories, and this shows it. So hurrah for Vallee, Hornby and Witherspoon for bringing this sort of story to the screen. If this marks a new direction for Witherspoon’s career, I’ll be paying much closer attention from now on.

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