I swear I tried to take this movie seriously. Reese Witherspoon — who stars and produced — is attempting a professional makeover. I'm all for her. Jean-Marc Vallée, the guy who gave us Dallas Buyers Club, directed, so how can one not expect great things? The script, based on Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir, was written by none other than Nick Hornby (High Fidelity). What could go wrong?
As I watched the actress pretend to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for two hours, I reminded myself I was viewing an official For Your Consideration award screener. That this means Wild is theoretically an awards-caliber, even Oscar-caliber, work. And yet, no matter how earnestly, how open-mindedly I considered Witherspoon's screen journey, I kept finding myself humming the theme from Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story.
That's not mature. I know. But, in my defense, I think it only fair to point out that Wild is really kind of silly. Not that unfortunate things don't happen to several of its characters. It's just that Strayed, Hornby and Vallée don't find much of significance to say about them. Certainly nothing one couldn't find on a Hallmark card. In a lot less than two hours.
The problem is the source material. In the summer of 1995, when Strayed decided to walk 1,100 miles of the trail alone, she wasn't a writer, a philosopher or even a hiker. She was a 26-year-old who had screwed up her life royally.
Following the death of her mother (played in flashbacks by Laura Dern), Strayed married the most understanding guy in movie history. His name is Paul, and he's played in flashbacks by Thomas Sadoski. You know he's the best husband ever from his reaction when Strayed inexplicably starts having sex with strangers and disappearing for days to shoot heroin in a drug den. He not only forgives her but later sends her letters at ranger stations along the trail that tell her how much he admires her. You can't make up stuff like this. I'm pretty sure.
In her book, Strayed never managed to connect the motivational dots between her self-destructive behavior and the decision to take a long, difficult, potentially dangerous walk. So it's no surprise the movie's creators aren't any more successful at making sense of her story.
Yves Bélanger's cinematography is spectacular, and the old Paul Simon songs are great. But what exactly are we watching here — an act of atonement? Liberation? Self-discovery? Redemption? In one of the film's way too many flashbacks, Strayed admits she hasn't a clue why she's doing this. Contrast her mind-set with those of the central figures in, say, Into the Wild or 127 Hours, and you can see how the movie might leave some viewers feeling like they've just endured a long slog to nowhere.
Witherspoon carries the film, along with a giant backpack, which — get it? — symbolizes her baggage. She turns in a performance that's solid but not a lot more — again, owing to the limited richness of Strayed's material. Wild chronicles the completion of a daunting physical challenge while intimating that it's about something more spiritual, more meaningful.
I couldn't find a lot of meaning in her journey, much less in her climactic epiphany. Maybe I'm missing something. You tell me. The film closes in voiceover with these words: "My life ... mysterious, irrevocable, sacred. So very close, so very present. So very belonging to me. How wild it was to let it be."
If you can make sense of that, then Wild's the movie for you. I'll be honest: Even as I type this, I'm still humming the theme from Walk Hard.