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Telluride Review: Reese Witherspoon Finds Nature, Catharsis in the Sentimental ‘Wild’

Telluride Review: Reese Witherspoon Finds Nature, Catharsis in the Sentimental 'Wild'

“Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling account of hiking across the Pacific Crest Trail, provides a lot of tearjerker material: Traumatized by her mother’s death, Strayed turned to drugs and promiscuous sex, destroyed her marriage, and fled to nature in search of catharsis. It comes as no surprise that the movie version, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a script by British novelist Nick Hornby, hits plenty of poignant notes.

But despite the powerful elements of Strayed’s real-life experiences, “Wild” goes out of its way to overstate the built-in sentimentalism. Taking cues from the book, the movie alternates from scenes following Strayed — a hiking novice — struggling through the rough trails under a brutal sun, and flashbacks to the experiences that sent her there.

These include her final days with her sweet-natured mother (Laura Dern) and the grimy downward spiral of heroin and infidelity that made her situation even worse. The result is two solid movies at odds with each other: a gentle ode to the wonders of the natural world and a more traditional account of a nervous breakdown.

At its center, however, Witherspoon excels as a committed figure battling through each rough day. So long as the action remains on the trail, Vallée stages an engaging survivalist tale that plays up the resolve on Witherspoon’s face, complemented with the rich visuals of an expansive landscape.

In the opening minutes, we witness the reluctant hiker rip off a loose toenail and accidentally knock her shoe down a ravine before erupting in a fit of frustration. Yet somehow she presses ahead, and as she reaches each new stage of her journey, “Wild” develops an emotional core from the payoffs of her recurring commitment. Making friends along the way — and even finding a few tentative romantic interests — Strayed literally rises from the dust to find a new path.

Which is why it’s so discouraging whenever the movie shifts to the past. The pratfalls of the “cancer movie” cliché come into play with tearful bedside moments as Strayed watches her mother fade away; other flashbacks to her childhood, when she coped with an abusive father, feel extraneous. The movie gives us too much information when the journey speaks for itself.

But even the contemporary scenes meander in parts, as hikes have a tendency to do, with throwaway moments including a random roadside encounter with a pushy journalist and another loose thread involving a possible sexual assailant in the woods. However, as with “Dallas Buyers Club,” Vallée laces his conventional plot with snazzy music cues (Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)” resonates particularly on several occasions) that smooth over a lot of the bumps along the way.

If nothing else, “Wild” offers a first-rate advertisement for the purifying abilities of the great outdoors. (PCT enthusiasts are likely to be pleased.) Cinematographer Yves Bélanger develops a rich green-and-brown palette to match the lyrical relationship that Strayed develops with her surroundings.

The synthesis of the movie’s visual allure and small moments illustrating its protagonist’s revelations provide “Wild” with a sincere foundation. One fleeting shot, when Strayed wakes up to find a horde of frogs hopping about her sleeping bag, registers with far more emotion than any given flashback. Even the on-the-nose symbolism of a starving fox that Strayed encounters on her travels is just subdued enough to work.

“Wild” is so enamored with its setting that the story can feel like an intrusion. The journey is much more compelling than the reasons behind it. There’s little in the way of shock or surprise about the drama that put Strayed on the trail, but the same could be said about the reasons for making a movie about it.

Grade: B-

“Wild” premiered this week at the Telluride Film Festival. It opens nationwide on December 5.

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Comments

DAN

A good film to watch. In general, the flashbacks are absolutely necessary for build up… maybe just not all of them.

Jane

I’ve seen the movie. Cute spunky blond walks, has flashbacks and gets to her destination. There are some good comedic moments but otherwise not a moving film. I didn’t feel her pain. B- was generous.

Susan

Movie held your interest, very poignant, moving , heartfelt story. It is a movie to enjoy, think about, share with your friends.

SL

I have seen the movie, and I also thought the review was a little snarky… I thought the movie was much better than the reviewer states…

rooob

Good review, sir! How much nudity is there? Could you describe her nude scenes?

Matt

@jesse
I mean the review was overall positive. Maybe you should wait to watch the movie before you start calling people snarky…

JJ

the trailer made this look like a sappy clunker of a movie trying to be "poignant" but ending up looking humorless and overwrought. reviews aren’t doing much to convince me otherwise.

Caleb

Gus Van Sant’s "Gerry" was shot by the late, great Harris Savides. Yves Bélanger also shot a film titled "Gerry" but that was directed by Alain Desrochers and is about a Canadian rocker.

Jesse

This review made me so upset I had to comment. Mr. Kohn, I consistently find you to be a reviewer who just doesn’t seem to have the affection for film that I would hope every reviewer has, or the humanity of someone who seeks art for its ability to transform experience. And, more simply, you’re snarky and not at all fair in your reviews of independent films. Derivative storylines and fictional superheroes devour our cineplexes weekend after weekend in orgies of cliches and you can’t watch a true story– which, yes, does share parts of the human experience that are sadly common to many of us– without resorting to quips about the cancer cliche, or the visited quality of the figure of the abusive father. One of your last lines bothered me, most: " There’s little in the way of shock or surprise about the drama that put Strayed on the trail, but the same could be said about the reasons for making a movie about it." I haven’t yet seen the film, and your review certainly won’t deter me, but it might others. I’m certain the psychology of her choices wasn’t groundbreaking and I’m sure she wasn’t the beneficiary of wilder plot lines that would possibly afford a seemingly jaded reviewer more pause. But I’m also sure her story was true, her journey was hard and I will enjoy seeing it– even in its possibly less than perfect execution– than I would be at nearly 90% of the children’s entertainment being offered me. Maybe I’m as bothered because your review didn’t attack craft, it attacked the material, and its storytelling merits. If you were a snarky blogger attacking from a more obscure location in space, it’d also be something else. But you’re the chief reviewer for Indiewire– a place for independent films. A woman’s true story– and a fascinating one at that– is independent in cinema these days. Perhaps wait an hour after you’ve seen the film next time before you rush to taint something on Twitter and everywhere else. Surely the film merited that shortest bit of reflection?

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