begins with novice hiker Cheryl Strayed at one of the lowest points
during her three-month, 1,100-mile-long solo trek along the Pacific
Crest Trail. She gingerly inspects her bloodied feet and prepares to
pluck a battered nail from her big toe. While yanking it, she emits a
primal scream of agony and causes one of her boots to tumble over a
steep cliff. In frustration, she tosses its partner down the incline as
well, and shrieks some colorful expletives for good measure.
should rightfully be filled with concern for this traveler, all alone
in the wilderness and sans appropriate footwear. Yet I knew she would be
all right. Why? Because Reese Witherspoon, an actress with enough
high-octane spunk to fuel an entire cheerleading squad as well as the
football team, is playing her.
has always been adept at embodying extreme personalities who somehow
manage to overcome whatever barriers are placed in their way. Whether it
is the underestimated smarts of Elle Woods in “Legally Blonde” or the
unstoppable ambition of Tracy Flick in “Election,” she is an expert at
personifying perky pillars of strength who are just a wee bit scary.
She is also a survivor, and not just on screen. Her career took a fall
that rivaled Strayed’s wayward boot after she won a Best Actress Oscar
for her role as country legend June Carter Cash in 2005’s “Walk the
Line.” How she ended up in the likes of “Four Christmases” (which
actually managed to collect a domestic gross of $120 million) and “How
Do You Know” (an out-and-out gobbler courtesy of once-great James L.
Brooks) is anyone’s guess. Mine would be that male-dominated mainstream
Hollywood rarely feels the need to showcase women over 30 as the
centerpiece of a movie, Academy Award or not.
Witherspoon recently took matters into her own hands by procuring film
projects for herself. She went after the rights to “Gone Girl” with
gusto. Unfortunately, she ended up with only a producer credit instead
of also starring after director David Fincher nixed the idea and went
with Rosamund Pike instead. Me, I would have loved to have seen her
variation on the schemer known as Amazing Amy.
there was no way she was letting go of the lead role in “Wild,” based
on Strayed’s 2012 best-selling memoir that recalls other self-induced
trials of endurance such as “Eat Pray Love,” “127 Hours” and “Into the
Wild.” And while Witherspoon summons all her skills and then some to
portray this lost soul on the path to recovery, I just could not
completely buy her in this part.
She is fine, however, when comically lugging an unwieldy backpack and
steadfastly sticking to her walking tour that begins in the Mojave
Desert and ends at the Cascades. There are plenty of encounters, both
welcome and unwelcome, along the way, including a rattlesnake, a curious
fox, predatory men and surprisingly kind strangers. She sweats, swears,
shivers and mutters her way through scorching heat and unseasonable
snow, copes with dehydration and gobbles freeze-dried meals, all the
while building up quite a stench in between rest stops.
I don’t believe Witherspoon would ever reek so horribly. Southern gals
like her glow, don’t you know. Yet she is still youthful enough at 38,
looking as if she is ready for high-school gym class in her hiking
shorts and T-shirt, that she easily pulls off portraying a 26-year-old.
In fact, she hasn’t been so unguarded and emotionally open onscreen
since her captivating film debut as a young teen in love in 1991’s “The
Man in the Moon.” Just as director Jean-Marc Vallee brought out the
best in Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in last year’s “Dallas Buyers
Club,” he mostly does right by Witherspoon.
for life-threatening hazards, they mainly exist in her head as flickers
of old memories grow into full-blown flashback sequences. I was less
convinced by these visits to the past where we see Strayed lose her
bearings after her adored mother dies from a virulent bout of cancer at
45. (Laura Dern, only nine years older than Witherspoon, manages to be
quite fabulous as Bobbi, a human sunbeam who radiates unconditional love
for her children after leaving behind an abusive marriage.)
by grief, Strayed engages in reckless sex with strangers and picks up a
heroin addiction while destroying her marriage to a rather sweet and
caring husband. Witherspoon tries, even doing her first-ever nude
scenes, to convince us she has hit the skids. Yet no matter how greasy
her hair or how dead her eyes, I just can’t buy her as a
“Wild” only suffers somewhat from this disconnect. It is engaging
enough to follow Strayed on her journey, one that she dedicates to
Bobbi. Her mission statement: “I’m going to walk myself back to the
woman my mother thought I was.” I enjoyed her literary-inspired
scribbles left behind at various signposts, starting with this quotation
from Emily Dickinson: “If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.”
Some of the soundtrack tunes are obvious—particularly Simon and
Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” and “Homeward Bound”—but they are
leavened with snippets of Lucinda Williams, Portishead and even some
highly appropriate Grateful Dead.
I decided to forgive most of the hints of miscasting after being
brought to tears by an unexpectedly beautiful moment provided by a young
boy strolling the trail with his grandmother as he serenades Strayed
with a heartbreaking rendition of “Red River Valley.” Even when “Wild”
occasionally stumbles, it gets back on track with relative ease.