Beautiful natural American scenery, a wonderful heart-felt performance from Reese Witherspoon and an honest, interesting story help stop Wild from becoming yet another boring yarn of self-discovery.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" in WILD.Have you ever been travelling? Like, really travelling, not just spending three weeks camping? I haven’t. The thought of walking a thousand miles through a desert on my own, wearing ill-fitting boots, lugging around a back-breakingly heavy ruck sack and eating cold watery porridge does not appeal to me, funnily enough.

However, I am lazy and contented. I am also more than willing to give up a little time up to spend an evening in a cinema watching somebody else struggle with all of the aforementioned. Particularly when that film is directed by the Oscar nominated Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, The Young Victoria etc) and stars multiple award winning actress Reese Witherspoon in the lead role.

Wild is adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby (An Education) from the memoirs of best-selling writer Cheryl Strayed as she hiked 1,100 miles up the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon during the 90’s. A personal challenge that the 26 year old embarked on to liberate herself from her life as a divorced heroin addicted grieving daughter, in order to (for want of a better phrase) find herself. It was a test of faith; not in God but in her own nature. To know that by the time she reached the end of her path, she would not only have moved on from her problems in a literal geographical sense, but also metaphorically.

As strange as it may seem, the story really isn’t about running away from your problems. Cheryl isn’t quitting her life, rather she is just on a different and new path. That’s mostly why I enjoyed Wild. Anybody could tell a story about walking from one place to another. Some people have and in the process bored the tits off of everyone listening. A journey isn’t just about moving your physical presence from one location to another, it’s about a change. A visible and honest growth of personality, maturity and character. It’s not even about Cheryl returning to the person she was before her recent traumatic experiences, because through the use of flashbacks to the time spent with the love of her life, her mother (Laura Dern), we see how she could sometimes be a pain the arse. It’s about accepting and overcoming what has happened. As painful as it is, the grieving process is not yet over for her and as she walks, with each step and bruise on her body, we can see a visible detox from lost, to slowly understanding, to almost-found.

It’s not an entirely satisfactory experience watching Reese Witherspoon’s progression. Nor, do I believe, is it fully intended to be. Scenes leading up to the start of her trek seen in flashbacks, showing Cheryl at her lowest ebbs, such as her marriage falling apart after having affairs with multiple complete strangers, or lying naked in a crack den, mirror aspects of her journey a bit too well. Vallée avoids being explicit in terms of laying things out for you or using too much exposition, but by the same token, images and songs used over and over to beat you into submission is not all too necessary when you get it the first time around.

To expand on that point for a second, the soundtrack is used two-fold. Firstly, cuts of tracks such as the (quite frankly brilliant) haunting folk song El Condor Pasa by Simon & Garfunkel is used to generate atmosphere as it plays over the opening title credits… and then quite a lot of other scenes afterwards. Secondly, as with a lot of other songs throughout, it is emotionally connected to Cheryl’s relationship with her mother and brother. Therefore, whenever you hear it, you too are then brought back to various other scenes without the need to literally see them again. It’s a cleverly employed technique, but can become distracting or artificial in its insistence on frequently relating experiences to one another.

When Carole Petts saw the film at the London Film Festival in October last year, she commented that “the film is a little thin on plot but worth seeing for its redemptive nature and for Witherspoon’s excellent performance”. It’s quite difficult to disagree with any of that. Particularly the final comment. As much as I loved Witherspoon in Election, this performance tops it.

Yes, the path trodden is well worn and despite some dark undertones and genuinely uplifting triumphs that penetrate both the flashbacks and the actual hike, it doesn’t really have a lot new to tell us. Of course that doesn’t automatically equate to an unoriginal and bland film; it’s still a competently delivered story with an actress unlucky to miss out on the best actress award at the Golden Globes this weekend. What I would say is, as a word of warning, if this doesn’t sound like your kind of film before going in, then it most likely won’t be your kind of film once you come out. If you’ve enjoyed the director, writer or actresses previous work at their best, then chances are this will also be of interest to you too.

Wild hits UK cinemas this Friday 16 January and will be featured on the upcoming Failed Critics podcast.

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