Towards the beginning of "Wild," we watch Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) prepare for a 1000 mile-long trek up the Pacific Crest Trail. In her own opinion, she dabbles in hiking, and is far from an expert. So the pack she decides to bring along is massive, nearly thwarting her from the very beginning with its size. But this, you see, is a metaphorical pack, a literalization of all the emotional baggage that Strayed will be carrying around with her. Later on, she learns from a more experienced hiker to take only the necessities, and to let unnecessary things go, such as a battered, treasured paperback that used to belong to her late mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). When the movie begins with an in-your-face symbol like that, you know you're in the hands of a director with big ideas on his mind. And by golly, that director will get them across to the audience, come hell or high water.
That director would be Jean-Marc Vallée. He is not the subtlest of directors, although he is a quite capable one. It is through his non-linear, stream-of-consciousness sensibility that Strayed's memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is visualized. Like in last year's "Dallas Buyers Club," Vallée is also responsible for the editing in this film, a mechanic he uses to full effect to show us precisely what is bobbing around in Cheryl's brain as she walks along her grueling path. It is the best, most cinematic part of a film that could otherwise have sunk under the weight of its portentousness.
Strayed—who adopted that name after divorcing her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski)—goes on her journey because her life has fallen apart. This is in part because of her own doing and also because of the sudden, devastating loss of her mother to spinal cancer, which sent her into a tailspin of drug abuse, casual sex, and the bulldozing of all her relationships to other people. The so-called PCT is populated almost entirely by men, some of whom are friendly, and others who aren't. She faces setbacks of all kinds, both physical and mental: her boots are too small, she bought the wrong fuel for her stove, she has a breakdown. By the end of her trip, Strayed will have experienced the full range of emotions, the majority of which are rather overwhelmingly negative. It's like watching someone give themselves an exorcism via physical exhaustion.
Holding it all together is Witherspoon, who plays up Cheryl's less appealing personality traits and plays down the nicer ones. She has made a career out of being a sweet lady, and here she is taking a blowtorch to that image. She receives producer credit, as well, indicating that this was a project she worked hard to get off the ground. You can tell that her very demanding role required a boat load of effort, yet she makes it look effortless, stripping away any vanity you could accuse her of having.
The heart of the film, however, is Dern, who steals every scene she is in. We're reminded constantly (and I mean constantly) how much Bobbi meant to Cheryl, but Dern handily convinces us that she could be a mother whose loss we would despair over, too. She provides most of the film's few bright spots, giving her character the indomitable buoyancy required to fight through not only cancer, but also near poverty, two difficult children, and an abusive marriage. If anyone deserves an Oscar nomination from this film, it's her.
So why the B? There's that issue of portentousness I mentioned before. Vallée is relentless in his piling on of symbolism and big moments in the film. He can hardly let a moment simply play out without swelling the music or cutting to a shot of Witherspoon's face, filled alternately with triumph or desolation. Also—and this may be unavoidable due to the film's structure—the film is episodic, as though its various incidents are not building to much of a climax. The ending sort of just… happens. The closing narration seems tacked on in order to provide closure, and it feels unearned.
It feels as though Vallée is attempting to corner the market on films about the triumph of the human spirit. His best instincts are in the editing room, however. Someone else with a bit more panache should handle the big job.