“Wild” 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.
We 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.
Witherspoon 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.
But 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.
But 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.
OK, 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.
As 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.)
Overwhelmed 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 self-destructive junkie.
Thankfully, “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.
Ultimately, 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.