Wild – Film Review

Reese Witherspoon shines as a woman who embarks on a 1,100 mile solo hike to obliterate her demons

Cheryl Strayed is a daily heroin user and possible sex addict whose spiral of self-destruction following her mother’s death ruins her marriage. Jobless, friendless and devastated by divorce, she embarks on a 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail to obliterate her demons. Wild – based on Strayed’s bestselling 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Crest Trail and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) – tells her story.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl, who begins her 94-day slog in the boiling Mojave Desert with not much more than powdered mashed potato to sustain her, and later takes in snow-capped Sierra Nevada and the rainier terrain of Oregon and the Washington State border. As she battles everything the trail throws at her – from the chronic loneliness that causes a breakdown in the desert, to a terrifying encounter with a threatening pervert – the 38-year-old combines vulnerability and determination to bring this troubling tale to life.

Documenting Strayed’s ordeal became a passion for Witherspoon, who bought the rights to the book and helped develop the film through her production company, Pacific Standard. The script by About A Boy and High Fidelity author Nick Hornby ensures this road to redemption avoids any claggy cheesiness, and remains gritty throughout. In steering away from cheap one-liners, Hornby uses the dialogue to fully expose Cheryl’s less appealing traits.

Wild delves into her psyche via a series of revealing flashbacks. There are uncomfortable, milkily lit scenes of physical and emotional abuse – including one particularly shocking moment when she is dead-eyed and strung out in a squat after a drug-fuelled orgy – that contribute to her growing feelings of guilt. In one flashback, we see Cheryl murdering a beloved family pet, despite promising her dying parent she would care for it.

Witherspoon is commanding and impressive throughout, but plays this harrowing and distressing scene particularly believably. Following a succession of fluffy performances in rom-coms such as 2010’s How Do You Know and 2012’s This Means War, Wild represents Witherspoon’s most impressive role since 2005’s Oscar-winning turn as June Carter Cash in Walk The Line.

Alongside Witherspoon is Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Jurassic Park), who shines in her few scenes as Barbara, Cheryl’s sweet, optimistic mother. In one, Cheryl – who, we are led to believe, is better educated than her mother – mocks Barbara for reading lowbrow books. Barbara replies that she always wanted Cheryl to be better than her, but that she didn’t expect it to sting so much. It’s the performances by the pair of them that really make Wild special.