Last year, director Jean-Marc Vallee earned “Dallas Buyers Club” stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Lead and Supporting Actor honors from nearly every major awards organization. Now, Vallee’s follow-up, “Wild”, has placed Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern as Lead and Supporting Actress frontrunners for their raw and brave performances in one of 2014’s most engrossing dramas.
Based on a true story, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who in 1995, hiked all 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, and chronicled the grueling and life-changing journey in her 2012 memoir. Strayed both wanted and needed to do this solo hike in order to deal, emotionally, with some difficult events from her past. And throughout “Wild”, these do haunt Strayed, forcing her to deal with her mistakes and push herself to continue.
Cinematically, the wildest element of “Wild” is the editing because of the numerous flashback scenes. Some last for several minutes, showing a much younger Strayed (Witherspoon looks quite convincing nonetheless) with her mother, Bobbi (Dern). Other times we get brief snippets of events that have brought Strayed to this point in her life. Eventually everything is fully revealed as the pieces come together in this complex and fascinating story of survival.
The physical and emotional demands of this role are many, and Witherspoon is up to the challenge for all of it. In a year when the Best Actress contenders list lacks the usual star power and punch, Witherspoon is clearly the frontrunner. She embodies Strayed as flawed, sympathetic, strong, weak and hopeful. We can’t help but root for her (though she is not a hero by any means) as she fights through some of the worst situations of her life, leading up to and including the hike. The complicated relationships Strayed has with her mother and husband (Thomas Sadoski) are nicely portrayed.
Vallee’s use of “day markers” on the screen from time to time throughout the film doesn’t quite work, and the ending is a little underwhelming considering how powerful the narrative is up until that point. But overall, “Wild” triumphs because it is daring, with no limitations. At no point, even when you think it might, does it get preachy or forceful. And it very well could win Witherspoon her second Oscar.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Wild” gets a B+.