‘Wild’ is a certainly a film made with the best intentions. ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ director Jean-Marc Vallée clearly saw the potential in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir to craft a story about the resilience and growth necessary to survive anything approximating a normal life. However, the movie transforms a poignantly true story into collection of self-help clichés masquerading as art. Sure, it’s well made, but that doesn’t make it worth watching.
Reese Witherspoon stars Strayed, a troubled young woman who decided to go on a 1,100 mile solo hike as personal milestone and maybe, just maybe to find herself. Along the way, we’re treated to endless beauty shots of deserts and forests, as well as a collection of men who meet Strayed along the way. They’re all either potential threats or boringly nice, with no middle ground or ambiguity allowed. As Strayed marches along, her entire life flashes through her mind and into the audience’s eyeholes through fragmented flashbacks. We learn of her troubled relationships with men, the tragic death of her mother, her struggles with heroin, and the time she was forced to kill a horse. You know, all of the things that perpetrators of melodrama (both good and bad) exploit to make us feel. Boy oh boy, is there a lot of feeling going on in this movie! Like, so much. The kind that’ll make emotionally unstable teenagers feel like they aren’t alone.
The film springs from personal, pained truths that Strayed experienced, so it might seem strange to criticize the movie for melodrama. After all, the story is real and these things happened. Yet, the fact of the matter is that once a true story is adapted to film, it’s going to be judged like fiction. The life lessons and harsh truths on display have simply been explored far too many times to register honestly anymore. The metaphor of difficult travel paralleled against the difficulties of life is almost embarrassing to watch at this point.
By assigning screenwriting duties to Nick Hornby, the pop culture parallels are also drawn thick and once again come off as tiresome rather than insightful. The postcard pretty cinematography and self-consciously mirrored editing techniques that Vallée applies to the material hammer home the themes with such force and disrespect to the audience’s intelligence that any sense of honesty and integrity left in the script is battered out by the filmmaking. ‘Wild’ is a Hallmark Channel sentimental melodrama masquerading as art, and no one who has been down this road before will be fooled.
Now, all that being said, the movie is not completely without merit. As overwrought as the film might be, the message is important and will find an audience. The story is pretty, sweet and raw enough to appeal to those who haven’t already heard it too many times to register. Reese Witherspoon is also remarkable in the lead role, running through a gamut of emotions and playing them with the openness of an exposed nerve. Her remarkable work is almost enough to save the movie… but not quite. Likewise, Laura Dern gives some of her finest work in years through flashback as Witherspoon’s mother. She gets only fragments of screen time, yet creates a living, breathing, feeling human being more vividly than many actresses with lead roles this year.
It’s a joy to watch these two wonderful actresses working at the peak of their powers, but a shame that the movie containing their work is so rote and irritatingly manipulative. If you’re desperate to see a movie about a long walk filled with emotions, then I suppose your dreams have come true. However, anyone seeking out actual cinema should look elsewhere.