In the summer of 1995, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed decided to walk the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself without ever having attempted a serious hike in her life. Following the death of her mother and after years of dissolute self-destructive behavior, Strayed found herself divorced, alone, lost and filled with despair. Desperately trying to find her humanity and reclaim her ideal self, she impulsively set out on an unpredictable and grueling odyssey from the Mojave desert through California to Oregon over the course of over 150 days.
A fascinating story, to be sure, but as re-imagined by screenwriter Nick Hornsby and director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, is a well-intentioned but misguided and occasionally even garish adaptation of Strayed’s memoir of the same name. Problematically for a story of spiritual redemption, the film never connects to authentic meaning.
Beginning in media res —Strayed, played by Witherspoon, is already deeply into her journey during a particularly harsh moment of duress and struggle— “Wild” then bifurcates its narrative. One section is told in the present, with the protagonist grappling with her demons during an overwhelming and exhausting trek, the other in the past, with Strayed flashing back through her troubled history, wondering how she got there or if she’ll ever make it to wherever she’s going.
Stylistically, “Wild” is deeply marred by its incessant dependence on often manipulative flashbacks. Let’s talk about those flashbacks! There’s the introspective flashback. There’s the jarring and chaotic flashback. The somber, reflective flashback and all sorts of variations that bludgeon the viewer for an arduous two hours. And then of course, there’s the fragmented flashback, wisps of memory flickering into the movie and erratically attempting to confer just how much pain, baggage and suffering Strayed has endured. There are even flashbacks within flashbacks. Let’s not even get into the flashbacks that act as musical video montages to Paul Simon, The Hollies or some classic pop song meant to confer extra profundity. “Wild” is inelegantly told and ceaselessly repeats itself ad nauseum.
Employing a lot of music that’s mercifully heard mostly in fleeting glimpses (aside from the full-on aforementioned musical montage), “Wild” wants to be a Lucinda Williams song —a little dark, a little sexy, boozy, hard-bitten, but eventually triumphant. But its sloppy and repetitive approach to form keeps that goal at an echoed distance.
Part of the problem is that Strayed’s backstory is withheld and the audience is meant to piece it together while she concurrently conducts an inner monologue that becomes an unfortunate and often unnecessary voice-over (variations on “shit, this sucks” fail to constitute riveting commentary on her trip). Of course, it’s not difficult to assemble her backstory, but Strayed is strangely composed when she starts her journey, which undercuts the sense of desperation her voyage is purportedly built upon.
She’s divorced, has been sleeping around and has done a lot of drugs, but not until much later into the picture do her transgressions appear to have down any damaging. And so for a large chunk of the picture, the audience is forced to ask themselves why this woman would compel herself to undergo such torture. Gradually, we learn that Strayed is heartbroken over the loss of her mother. But her parent’s death still feels insufficient as an impetus towards becoming an unrepentant heroin addict and tramp while married to a man who is loving and understanding enough to rescue his wife from a drug den. “Wild” suggests Strayed is monumentally unhappy and scarred from various childhood traumas —an abusive, alcoholic father; a loving, but lost mother— but never successfully or convincingly rationalizes the canyon-like jump from discontented and sad to full-blown self-destructive and hopeless.
And Vallée’s approach never lands its punches. When the movie attempts to be vivid, instead it comes off as a jumbled collage of images that a first-year film school editor would think amateurish. And various bursts of disarming humor as an attempt to lighten the mood are either lame or fall flat. Ironically, “Wild” is never present in the moment like its character strives to be when she’s quoting poetry by Emily Dickinson, Flannery O’Connor or Walt Whitman. “Wild” can never really pick up steam because it’s constantly ping-ponging from present to past.
Witherspoon is valiantly unvarnished and raw in the movie, but one shouldn’t mistake some nudity and no make-up for a tour-de-force performance. “Wild” consists of Witherspoon grimacing through the hardships of her character’s self-imposed atonement while reflecting back on her life, and not a lot more. Her spiritually worn-out and emotionally fatigued routine eventually grow as tired as the narrative. It’s a respectable performance, especially when compared to the last few years of vapid roles in vapid films, but certainly not transformative; the predictions of the “Reese-surgence” have already been overstated.
Co-starring Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Gaby Hoffmann, and Kevin Rankin, some audiences are certainly going to connect with the movie’s self-empowering themes of resolve and perseverance, but the film’s rarely communicates anything deeper than the Hallmark card variety “most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose" (yes, this is an actual quote from Strayed’s book "Tiny Beautiful Things").
It’s a self-help field guide full of clichés and platitudes about not surrendering the joys of life and putting oneself directly in the path of various beauties. Most of these sentiments are unsubtle, mawkishly told, and hardly ever do they resonate beyond the bromide. It’s important to note that in the right hands, these universal themes of life, loss and overcoming obstacles can be quite moving (the last 10 minutes of “127 Hours” runs circles around most of “Wild”), they are the building blocks of most narratives, but as reduced here they are dull and uninspired.
“Wild” never really earns its hard-fought struggle for redemption and personal reinvention. Witherspoon’s walkabout is punishing physically, but never as remotely emotionally affecting as any of the survival narratives that dominated 2012 (even “Gravity” carried more emotional weight and that’s not saying a lot). Instead, the movie mistakes suffering and hardship for accomplishment; every grunt, scrape, bruise and laceration is meant to grant gravitas to Witherspoon’s ordeal. “Wild” attempts to say something about personal paths, journeys and the search for oneself when spiritually unmoored, but the quest rarely plumbs beneath the Oprah’s Book Club-friendly surface. [C-]