From the director of Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée), Wild recounts the reckless behavior of Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon), who makes a rash decision to embark on a challenging trek across the Pacific Crest Trail. With absolutely no experience, she sets out to hike more than a thousand miles all on her own — in what becomes an unforgettable journey of transformation and redemption that strengthens and ultimately heals her.
As enjoyable and entertaining as 'Wild' is for what it is – a competent and heartfelt adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's nonfiction account of walking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself – the film is more impressive for what it is not. For starters, despite all appearances to the contrary, it is not a tearjerker, or edifying story about overcoming adversity. Though they may learn something, the film isn't out to teach the audience anything, nor is it out to moralize. And that's a refreshing approach to material that could otherwise so easily have come at the audience simply by preaching to the choir.
Instead, the film, directed by Jean-March Vallée ('Dallas Buyer's Club') with a screenplay by novelist Nick Hornby ('High Fidelity,' 'About a Boy'), takes seriously the notion of its narrative being one woman's personal journey, one that may well be an uplifting inspiration to others, but doesn't necessarily seek to be. This is a richer film, one that is interested in building an audience, rather than appealing to a built-in one of self-help, and spiritual die-hards eager to pin the PCT as the next soul-cleansing ritual everyone with a modicum of personal strife must undertake to become whole again.
And that is a tough hill to climb, considering the story at hand. Strayed's journey began in June of 1995. It came after an extended period of grief and self-destructive behavior, following the death of her mother Bobbi. In the film, Bobbi is played by Laura Dern, who is seen through a series of sepia-tinged flashbacks – the familiar convention intended to artsy up an equally familiar but necessary narrative device used to peek into Strayed's mind, in order to better understand the depths of her grief.
Dern is magnificent in her portrayal of a woman whose life was unfairly cut short by illness, and who spent too much of it in the midst of an abusive alcoholic husband. And much to Hornby's credit, he could have worked the mother-daughter connection in far more emotionally manipulative ways. But he chose to paint the memories as just that: a child's gilded memories of a lost loved one that demonstrates not only the bond but also the anguish in subtle, effective ways. Anything more, and the film would be guilty of over explaining a relationship that is easily understood in short, but successful interactions that underling the meaning behind Cheryl's journey, giving it a purpose beyond a the whim of a woman lost in mourning.
That's not to say the film doesn't overcommit to certain narrative aspects like, say, its symbolism; it does. If anything, 'Wild' is laden with too many symbols or metaphors, when one (or two) will do just fine. And in that, there is a sense of unnecessary handholding in Hornby's script. It is uneven. Certain key moments are communicated artfully, without dialogue or soaring musical cues intended to stir the audience's emotional response. In these moments the film comes very close to becoming great, to elevating itself beyond the trappings of a manipulative tearjerker.
Cheryl's journey is the film's major metaphor, but that is layered by the presence of her overstuffed backpack – one that is so heavy she physically cannot lift it, and struggles to move while it is on her back. As the film goes on, and Cheryl reaches the middle of her ninety-four day journey, she deliberately makes the pack lighter, thereby lessening her burden. It's a simple, but effective metaphor that works harmoniously with the themes being explored in the straightforward narrative as well as through flashback. The film's metaphorical cup runs over during sequences wherein Cheryl is confronted by a fox, clearly intended to symbolize her mother.
It makes sense that 'Wild' would go all in on such symbolism. It was likely included as a way to combat the fear that Cheryl was a character trapped inside a vacuum. As a result, the film is overloaded with things for the main character to encounter, who although she does have several encounters with folks along the way, like a friendly, but disapproving farmer, a fellow hiker, two sexually aggressive bow hunters, and a sexist park ranger, as a way of giving her something to interact with, rather than simply alone with her thoughts. This is a challenge in adapting first person narratives – especially of the nonfiction variety – but it's one that isn't enough of a problem here to warrant the overuse of symbolic devices.
Thankfully, the film is not only held together but elevated by Witherspoon's outstanding performance as Strayed, a complex woman of multitudes, one who is an intriguing contradiction at times, a mixture of hidden inner strength and exposed weaknesses. And to her credit, Witherspoon excels at demonstrating it all with simple, subtle gestures and actions, saving the large moments for when the count, for when they will have the most impact. Witherspoon's performance is more raw and compelling than she's been as of late. Her determined depiction of Cheryl Strayed harks back to her Academy Award-winning performance as June Carter in 'Walk the Line' – where she also excelled at playing a complex, real-life woman – but here her performance feels more crafted by her as an individual performer, and less reliant on preexisting knowledge. And because of that, Cheryl is allowed to become a more rounded character through Witherspoon's performance, rather that what the audience already knows.
If anything, certain unnecessary symbolic gestures aside, 'Wild' should be commended for its willingness to engage with its audience through the story of a single woman that is just that. This isn't intended to be a universal truth boiled down into a single 115-minute film. It is something more personal and unique. It is Strayed's own journey compressed into an engaging and entertaining piece of work. Some may find inspiration in its telling, but the audiences' enjoyment of the film isn't contingent on some prescribed spiritual awakening.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Wild' comes from Fox Searchlight as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc + Digital Download in the standard keepcase. The disc is accompanied by a small booklet featuring a short acknowledgement by Cheryl Strayed titled 'Life After Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.' There are a handful of trailers ahead of the top menu that can be skipped individually or all at once. At the top menu users can choose from playing the film, or going through the many supplements included on the disc.
'Wild' has been given a top-notch transfer that showcases the gorgeous cinematography of Yves Bélanger, and the location shooting in and around the PCT. The image is bright, colorful – even during the shots that are laden with heavy filters – and full of rich detail. There are only a few instances where the fine detail of faces, and clothing textures seems to drop off and produce a shallow-looking image. Otherwise, the transfer gives a terrific and consistent amount of detail.
Contrast is high throughout. Early on, as Cheryl's journey begins in the heat of California, the image refrains from being too hot, or overbearing with the white balance. This keeps the screen's temperature even, despite the bright oppressiveness of the sun. Black levels are similarly well handled, producing tremendous variation from the slightest gray shadow to the inky blackness of night. All of which is free from banding or crush.
On top of that, color is bright and vibrant, but even from start to finish. Nothing is over or under saturated, even though the film leans toward wanting to use such devices to get certain points across. Still, this is a measured transfer that delivers a very detailed package, overcoming some of the challenges that can be presented by certain filters being used too liberally.
Though sturdy and workmanlike, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is not as thrilling as the picture. For all the atmosphere and sense of place the film strives to convey in practically every shot, the audio, for the most part, only delivers a modicum of that atmosphere. There are ambient noises sprinkled throughout, but too rarely to any of them come through the rear channels to create a sense of immersion. There are a few instances, sure, like during an unexpected thunderstorm, where the crack of thunder and sudden precipitation are heard brilliantly. But for all the walking Cheryl does, all the moving about in nature, the lack of a wholly immersive and atmospheric sound feels like an opportunity lost.
Still, the audio does deliver strong dialogue throughout that is crisp and easily heard. It is also balanced nicely with the use of musical cues and the film's own score, as well as sound effects. Directionality – around the front speakers, anyway – is quite good, as it showcases the mix's ability to reference what is on screen and the camera's attempts to capture it dynamically.
Though it would have been nice to listen to a more layered audio mix, this is strong enough to please most listeners.
Audio Commentary by Jean-Marc Vallée, Bruna Papandrea, and David Greenbaum – This feature-length commentary from the film's director and two of its producers focuses mainly on the realities of directing in the real locations and the unique challenges that presented. This is an informative commentary that offers a few surprises, but is mostly a straightforward account of filming in and around the PCT.
The Real Cheryl Strayed (HD, 9 min.) – This is an interview with Cheryl Strayed, along with a few other interviews with Reese Witherspoon, and director Jean-March Vallée. Like the rest of the featurettes, this is very produced, and the fact that Strayed is not interviewed along with the film's star or director seems to decrease the informative value somewhat.
The Real Location is the Best Location (HD, 9 min.) – Another featurette that focuses on the film's ambitious location shooting in and around the Pacific Crest Trail.
How Much Does a Monster Weigh? (HD, 4 min.) – This is a quick account of the real monster (i.e., Cheryl's overstuffed backpack) that shows all of the items she carried along with her and how much it weighed.
The Pacific Crest Trial Interactive Map (HD) – This map shows the PCT and key moments of the film, which the viewer can click on to jump directly to that point in the movie.
Bringing the Book Into the Wild (HD, 4 min.) – This is a quick discussion about how the filmmakers and Nick Hornby approached adapting a nonfiction narrative to the screen.
Reese Witherspoon in the Wild (HD, 4 min.) – Witherspoon gives an account of the film's rigorous shoot and what she learned about herself while making the movie.
Wild: 94 Days, 1,100 Miles (HD, 3 min.) – This featurette focuses on Cheryl's journey and what it meant to her as someone recovering from loss.
Directing Wild (HD, 4 min.) – This short featurette focuses on director Jean-Marc Vallée, and his approach to making the film.
Making Wild (HD, 5 min.) – Another making of featurette. By this time, the interviews have begun to use the same footage.
Pacific Crest Trail (HD, 4 min.) – A look at the size and scope of the PCT.
Real Locations (HD, 3 min.) – Another look at the locations featured in the film.
Experiencing the PCT: A Special Message From Cheryl Strayed (HD, 2 min.) – This is a PSA in which Strayed speaks to the beauty of the PCT and acknowledges the men and women who strive to maintain the trail.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 min.)
Deleted Scenes (HD, 8 min.) – Features optional commentary by the director.
'Wild' is certainly one of (if not the) best films of Witherspoon's career. Filled with passionate performances that strive to tell a story without moralizing, the film is smart in many key storytelling elements. Although it could have cut back a bit on the symbolism in some cases, those missteps don't derail what is an enjoyable and entertaining film about one woman's personal journey through loss. With great image, good sound, and some interesting if repetitive supplements, this one comes recommended.