Beset by personal demons, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) sets out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail solo. It’s a difficult journey even for an experienced trekker, and early on it’s clear that Cheryl is a novice in way over her head: before she even sets off, she comically overstuffs her frame pack and struggles to get it on. It’s a lighthearted scene that nonetheless hints at the heavy psychological load she carries.
Wild initially seems to be of the same ilk as Into the Wild or 127 Hours, following the doomed outing of a young protagonist venturing alone deep into nature’s unforgiving maw. Threats lurk around every bend—the chilling buzz of a rattle-snake, the leers of uncouth men—while dehydration and starvation are never far off. But these incidents tend to slowly diffuse in the movie’s fragmentary narrative. Instead, the places Cheryl passes through and the people she meets trigger flashback detours into her troubled past and memories of her luminous mother (Laura Dern).
Jean-Marc Vallée found success directing Hollywood stars in leading roles against type in Dallas Buyers Club. He returns for another round of it here, with Reese Witherspoon as a serial adulterer and junkie with a fondness for expletives. And Witherspoon, yet to entirely shed her America’s Sweetheart image, ably assumes the role of a woman who has veered from the path of righteousness to become a cynical, self-destructive wreck who must lose herself in the wilderness to find her way back to the world.