Appears originally in the Newport Mercury
Film review: 'WILD’
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenplay by Nick Hornby
Rated R | 115 min. | 4 out of 5 stars
Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “The Young Victoria”) makes directorial choices as bold as the main character in “Wild,” adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s memoir by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “An Education,” “High Fidelity”). In 1995 Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) treks the Pacific Crest Trail, from Southern California to Oregon, naturally to find herself, but because of Witherspoon’s performance, the script, Vallée’s hand and the digging around in the human condition, it’s fresh.
Cheryl is literally falling apart at the beginning of the film — we get to watch her rip off her big toenail to our chagrin but now we’re bonded to our protagonist like a blood brother. She quotes Simon & Garfunkel’s “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail”: a refrain to which we’ll periodically return like PCT signposts. She’s panting, has made it to the top of a peak (we realize later it’s in the middle of her hike), and unlike so many before her who have been wooed by adrenaline and dopamine she swears a huge F-U into the abyss after losing one hiking boot and throwing the other after it. Lucky she has a sense of humor behind the set jaw (and later the phone number to REI) or this journey could get old fast.
She is woefully over-prepared, carrying a pack that seems to weigh as much as her — baggage much? And baggage there is, which we discover as the film flashes back to time with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) and brother Leif (Keene McRae). She’s left a failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski) in her dusty wake as well and a true best friend, Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann). Paul and Aimee send her care packages along the way. There is some respite from the loneliness, though some of the people she meets are threatening.
The soundtrack is used in a clever way I haven’t seen before. Because she is walking alone in the quiet — though nature does get deafeningly loud — snippets of songs will come. Portishead’s “Give Me a Reason to Love You” figures prominently during one of the darkest parts of the film and it works even though it’s flashback upon flashback because it presents several catalysts for her decision to make this hike. We hear bits of “Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Suzanne” and finally toward the end she meets a woman and her grandson (and their Alpaca sherpa) and the child (Evan O’Toole) sings her “Red River Valley.” Try not to cry.
There are a few clumsy moments such as the plot turning sporadically episodic — adaptation is, like Cheryl’s overstuffed backpack, a monster. Vallée can be almost forgiven the CGI fox that appears to Cheryl now and then, though a real fox would be preferable if Cheryl must have a spirit animal. Animal trainers Roland Sonnenburg and Lauren Henry managed to beautifully wrangle a real alpaca, after all. But after all “Wild” will give you that empathetic feeling in your chest and will probably choke you up unless you are made of CGI yourself.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
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