Reese Witherspoon finds herself while hiking the Pacific Coast Trail

Also opening this week:

• American Sniper



Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée.
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Gaby Hoffmann, Laura Dern, Kevin Rankin, W. Earl Brown, Ted Rooney, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman, Cheryl Strayed, Brian Van Holt.
Written by: Nick Hornby, from the novel by Cheryl Strayed.

One of the most difficult genres to bring to cinematic life must be the journey of self-discovery. The external journey that leads to internal truths has been the basis for some of literature’s most celebrated novels, which include Siddhartha, On the Road, and All the Pretty Horses, though film adaptations of each of those novels have failed to register. Eat Pray Love was one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had in a cinema. 

Into the Wild was a notable exception, I think, because of the ultimate revelation that awaited Christopher McCandless at the end of his journey: that self-discovery resulted in one of the most devastating gut-punches the genre could have produced, even if that wasn’t entirely the intent.

Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and written for the screen by Nick Hornby from Cheryl Strayed’s autobiographical novel, is almost like the inverse of Into the Wild. Here’s an inexperienced and unprepared city slicker who hikes the Pacific Coast Trail from Mexico to Canada in order to “find” herself – and she does. 

Well… good for her. 

Reese Witherspoon stars as Strayed, a young woman living in Minneapolis who’s stuck in a downward spiral after the death of her mother, vibrantly played by an Oscar-nominated Laura Dern in flashbacks. Hornby’s script likes to play the slow-reveal game after opening with Strayed starting her hike, but we eventually learn that she cheated on her husband, got into hard drugs, and worse.

Until she had enough, and decided to rough it over the months-long hike up the PCT. For a movie titled Wild, however, the movie features precious little of the wilderness, or even hiking; instead, much of the film focuses on the diverse characters Strayed runs into at stopping points along the way.

Despite being played by the always-likable Witherspoon, nominated for an Oscar here, I couldn’t help but feel offput by the central character throughout much of the film. She takes so much luggage with her that she can barely lift her bag, she wears boots that are a size too small, she takes the wrong kind of fuel and can’t cook… and so on.

And yet, at every step of the way, she’s aided by the kindness of strangers. The very same strangers that she has left the city to get away from, and there’s even a late-film scene with a threatening hunter to remind us that no, not everyone is good. Strayed has that wonderful epiphany and becomes a better person by the end, but we don’t feel like she’s really earned it.

In a movie about roughing it away from civilization, Wild also features a lot of bizarre product placement: REI sends her a new pair of boots (for free?) along her journey, she dreams of Snapple Pink Lemonade, the camera lingers on Lay’s potato chips and Clif bar wrappers. There’s a point to be made here about being unable to extricate ourselves from our brand-name lives, but I think that might be giving the movie too much credit.

I have no doubt that Wild is an authentic adaptation of Strayed’s novel (director Vallée employs the same kind of realist techniques that he did in Dallas Buyers Club), and said novel holds great appeal to a certain demographic. This film version, however, fails to fully come together in dramatic terms, or give us enough reason to care about Strayed and her journey. It is, however, a heckuva lot easier to take than Eat Pray Love.

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