I admit it: I would never walk a thousand miles over three months, spending days and night all alone in the desert, the woods or whatnot, sleeping in a tent, etc. But that’s what movies are for, right? Making you experience things vicariously, giving you a chance to walk a mile (in this case, a thousand miles) in someone else’s shoes, you know?
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, “Wild” stars Reese Witherspoon as a young woman who, in the mid-1990s, set out to hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. As written by Nick Hornby and directed by Quebec’s own Jean-Marc Vallée, the film begins in media res, with Cheryl already well on her way, dirty and tired, with bruised legs, a bloodied toenail and a irrepressible desire to screams her lungs out.
We then go back to the beginning of her trek, but without learning more about why she decided to put herself in this ordeal. In fact, we know nothing at all about her, this small woman with a huge backpack in the middle of nowhere. It’s only little by little, via a series of flashbacks, that we’ll find out more about Cheryl. And I’m not talking about well-ordered, neat little chronological flashbacks; “Wild” goes back and forth in time seemingly randomly, fascinatingly following its main character’s stream of consciousness.
We hear Witherspoon’s thoughts in voice-over or sometimes she talks to herself, or sings to herself, and a thought or a song will smoothly lead into a flashback about her late mother (Laura Dern), her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski), her years as a self-destructive, promiscuous, heroin-shooting lost soul…
The storytelling is amazingly organic. I don’t know how much of it is Hornby’s screenplay, but one of thing’s for sure: the editing in “Wild” is absolutely brilliant, some of the best I’ve ever seen. Kudos to Vallée himself (credited as John Mac McMurphy) and Martin Pensa for giving the film an incredibly involving, unpredictable, impressionistic flow, making “Wild” a purely cinematic character study.
Equally impressive is the use of sound and music, which further puts us in Cheryl’s head and makes the transition between past and present even more natural. As mentioned, much of the songs we hear are part of our protagonist’s inner soundtrack. She notably often has Simon & Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa and Homeward Bound on her mind, recurring music cues that act as sort of a score for “Wild”.
Of course, all these efforts to make us understand Cheryl from the inside out wouldn’t add up to much if the actress playing her didn’t do her part, but no worries there, Reese Witherspoon gives her all here, physically and emotionally. She’s embodying a rather flawed woman, but that doesn’t make her any less endearing. We care about her right away, increasingly so as we discover bits and pieces of her backstory. During her hike, we’re happy when she comes across the kindness of strangers and we’re scared when she runs into men who seem to want to use or abuse her.
“Wild” is easily one of the best pictures I’ve seen all year and it just might be my favorite Jean-Marc Vallée movie. Don’t miss it!