Saturday movie review: 'Wild'

Let me first say that I have not read Cheryl Strayed's book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, upon which the movie WILD is based. So you won't find here any comparisons of the book to the movie WILD

Wild movie poster

For those who, like me, somehow failed to read Strayed's best-selling book, WILD is the true story of Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon, who after the death of her beloved mother (Laura Dern), falls into wild, dangerous, destructive behavior. She does drugs. She — despite being married to a kind-hearted husband (Thomas Sadoski) — has casual sex with any man who asks. She ruins her marriage. She ruins herself.

Strayed eventually decides to attempt finding and repairing herself by hiking the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Alone. Having little experience as a hiker, much less one who might hike solo for three months from Mexico to Washington state. But she sets out, working through her memories and misdeeds — much of which relates to her mother and now ex-husband — along the way.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed surprised me. She has not one whit of perkiness about her, no American sweetheart, for sure. Instead, she's gritty, dirty, does drugs, does nude scenes, does despair like you wouldn't believe. She also does determined, persistent, painful, sorrowful.

Witherspoon also expresses strength, literal strength, as it's been said that director Jean-Marc Vallée — he of the unforgettable DALLAS BUYERS CLUB — filled Witherspoon's backpack with bricks and such to make it just as heavy as Strayed's pack actually was. It's also been said that Witherspoon admits to thinking she'd never make it through the first scene of having to wear the heavy load. Yet, wear it she does, and soon seems quite at ease hauling it through to the end. 

I was first unsure of how realistic it might feel seeing Laura Dern portray Bobbi, Strayed's mother. Even though Bobbi had Strayed at a young age, it still seemed Dern and Witherspoon were too close in age. Dern's performance, though, turned out to be the most moving, most poignant, most resonant for me. She fantastically and heartbreakingly emanated joy in the face of hardship, made me consider how if Strayed's mother really were like the mother Dern portrays, it's easy to see how the loss of such a light and force could throw a daughter into a tailspin.

This scene epitomizes Dern's performance:

Between Witherspoon's gritty performance, Dern's shining one, a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and the brilliance of Jean-Marc Vallée, I felt like I had traveled alongside Strayed as she worked through her demons and came out triumphant. Thankfully the journey for me took place in a darkened theater, without me having to take one single step. Still, I felt empowered at the end of the trail, the end of the film.

WILD (rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language) opens in theaters December 5, 2014. Find out more on the film's official website.

I screened this film for free as part of my coverage of the 2014 Starz Denver Film Festival.