A story of self-discovery can always be compelling. It is something that drives even the more giant characters in blockbusters films on adventures (Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit?), but when it becomes more small and personal, it can be something insightful and beautiful. Director Jean-Marc Vallee and star Reese Witherspoon are able to find that core many times in Wild as the director’s follow-up to Dallas Buyers Club is one of the year’s standout biopics.
Witherspoon stars as Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Coast Trail in order to have some self-discovery after tragedy struck her life. The actress plays the role raw and shows, much like Matthew McConaughey in the director’s last film, that the limit to tell a good story is always being pushed if the performer is driven by the character.
Overall, the crowning achievement of the entire film is the sincere look into the female mind that works better than any YouTube video that shows girls walking down the street in New York City. Instead, Strayed (who mind you is walking at times alone in the wilderness) is put into tense moments that can work like a horror movie. But with a lack of a lurking creature from the bushes, the monster takes on the guise of man with multiple male characters causing some fright when they come into contact with her.
It’s interesting to dig into this vision that Cheryl has as she moves along the path. The first instance she faces with a man is early in the journey when she asks a worker if she could get a ride into town to get a nice meal and a bed to sleep on. As he agrees, we see her sitting in the car waiting for him to finish up work. With the night approaching, he jumps in the car (with his shirt off) and begins to flirt with her and offers different items for her to drink or eat. Cheryl is strong though and while her flashbacks show that she has many weaknesses, it compliments the strength that she is finding in herself along the journey.
This male centered tension works alongside the entire challenge of making this hike and while we never fully dive into why she may feel this way, there never is a reason to do that. This tension isn’t just built up for Cheryl Strayed, but for any other woman who could feel the same way in a more urban situation. Instead, we have Cheryl out in the wild trying to fight off rogue hunters who clearly have an eye for her looks.
Wild never outdoes the biopic genre, but in a field that seems to be putting out average efforts recently, it is nice to see a new perspective and one with a distinct vision thanks to Vallee and Witherspoon. The tension works, the character is engaging, and the journey is satisfying. While we could ask for so much more from a film like this, it is also respectable that we can get one that dives into themes such as femininity and the challenge of being a woman in this man’s world (this is shown by only one other woman appearing with her on the trail).
Witherspoon sells the role in what could be one of her best performances yet, it also shows that there is a story to tell within these themes and maybe some more directors and actresses will dive into it in a similar fashion.