By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Just as Reese Witherspoon’s Wild character hikes over a thousand miles, the Walk the Line Oscar winner for best actress walks her way right into this year’s Oscar race.
Wild is a chronicle of one woman’s grueling 1,100-mile, three-month journey of self-discovery in the American Northwest, from the Mojave Desert to the state of Washington, BY HERSELF as she heals, atones, and cleanses following a recent string of bad choices and personal tragedies.
The recent film Wild immediately recalls is Tracks, another true-life tale of redemption via a long, long walk that takes place in Australia and involves a character played by Mia Wasikowska.
And one can’t help but be reminded of Julia Roberts’ similar pilgrimage in 2010’s Eat Pray Love (putting us in “Eat Pray Hike” territory) as well as the Sean Penn-directed Into the Wilderness.
Following the sudden death of her adored, cancer-stricken mother (a luminous and touching Laura Dern) four years ago, the recent end of her troubled marriage to her supportive ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), and a lengthy downward spiral of self-destructive behavior –- including rampant promiscuity and heroin addiction –- 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed starts off on the Pacific Crest Trail, one intended for expert hikers, which she is not, and with no advance preparation, ill-fitting boots, and an unwieldy, overstuffed backpack she can barely lift.
She is, in other words, very, very brave and very, very foolish.
On the way, she will encounter dangerous conditions, dangerous deprivation, dangerous animals, and dangerous men.
Did I mention there would be dangers?
“You can quit anytime,” the ill-prepared Cheryl with the made-up last name keeps reminding herself. But she doesn’t. Instead, she follows through on her desire and promise to “walk myself back into the woman my mother thought I was.”
Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee (C.R.A.Z.Y., Young Victoria), who guided Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar-winning performances in last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, works from a script by novelist Nick Hornby and Strayed, based on her empowering, 2012 best-selling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
The director employs a gritty, unfussy shooting style that gives the film a documentary-like feel, which is appropriate if not aesthetically pleasing.
The fractured-narrative approach, utilizing numerous brief flashbacks, risks the possibility of distracting from the film’s spine but in this case manages to avoid that trap. However, the film remains much more effective in showcasing the how of Strayed’s arduous undertaking than exploring the why of it.
Witherspoon, who also developed the project and served as a producer, does her best work since 2005’s Walk the Line, and delivers the kind of performance in a physically and emotionally demanding role that makes the film seem like a comeback, even though she hasn’t really been away.
But this certainly finds her outside the comedy comfort zone that she established in the Legally Blonde flicks over a decade ago.
So we’ll walk past 2½ stars out of 4 for an absorbing biographical drama about redemptive transformation on a cathartic solo trek. Chances are you won’t be wild about Wild, but you’ll appreciate being along for the hike.