“WILD” My rating: B+ (Opens wide on Dec. 19)
115 minutes | MPAA rating: R
Man-against-nature stories are fairly common. Women-against-nature…well, that’s a rarer breed.
In “Wild” a perfectly unglamorous Reese Witherspoon plays real-life writer Cheryl Strayed, who some years ago hiked more than 1000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the Mexican border and ends in Canada.
Strayed‘s story, as recorded in her 2012 memoir Wild, was both an escape from a tormented past (a failed marriage and drug addiction, for starters) and a long trek toward self discovery.
That journey, and the agonizing personal history that got it all started, have been effectively realized by Witherspoon (another Oscar nomination seems inevitable) and director Jean-Marc Vallee, who guided Matthew McConaughey to a best actor Oscar in “The Dallas Buyers’ Club.”
That earlier film was a middling movie elevated by a terrific lead performance. “Wild” raises the bar considerably — not only is Witherspoon superb (for much of the movie it’s just her and the scenery), but the storytelling technique proffered by Valee and screenwriter Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity,” “About a Boy,” “An Education”) almost perfectly captures the key elements of Strayed‘s tale through visual and aural poetry rather than conventional narration.
The film begins with Strayed, a tenderfoot in both the literal and figurative sense, setting out on the trail maintained by the National Park Service.
She has crammed her backpack with so much equipment that she moves like Atlas straining to lift the entire Earth. The damn thing is so heavy it constantly threatens to flip her onto her back and leave her clawing the air like a helpless turtle.
Her new hiking boots are too tight, resulting in blood and blisters. Initially she’s lucky to cover five miles a day. She has never pitched a tent before, or tried to cook on a propane camp stove. She’s not sure how to deal with the rattlesnake in her path or the coyotes that howl all night.
But she’ll learn, just as she’ll learn to deal with heat and snow and physical exhaustion.