For a while there, it seemed like Reese Witherspoon had given up on the “great actress” thing. Sure, she won an Oscar for her enchanting work in “Walk the Line,” but since then had suffered the same fate as many a Best Actress winner, toiling in a post-award purgatory riddled with ill-advised comedies (“Four Christmases,” “This Means War”) and syrupy romances (“How Do You Know,” “Water for Elephants”), not to mention a real-life arrest. But beginning with last year’s acclaimed “Mud” and now another Oscar-worthy performance in Jean Marc-Vallee’s “Wild,” it seems like Reese is back to her luminous self.
In that regard, she’s a lot like the character she portrays, famed writer and backpacker Cheryl Strayed, the woman who embarked upon and accomplished an 1100-mile solo hike through the Pacific Northwest as a way to recover (not find) herself. The hike is interspersed with a multitude of flashbacks and surreal imagery representing her thoughts, dreams, and memories, opportunities to delve into Cheryl’s tragic past, though sometimes to meandering effect. The film is at its best when Cheryl’s in the present, soaking in the journey or struggling out of precarious situations. Vallee does an excellent job gleaning tension from the simple fact that Cheryl is female, alone in the wilderness, encountering a variety of strangers, most friendly, but a few unsavory. Every scene she encounters a man on her trek is ripe with uncertainty for at least the first thirty seconds, the possible impending doom of an attempted rape or a malevolent coercion. Despite the exquisite landscapes around her, Nick Hornby’s script, understandably so, seems more concerned with exploring what brought Cheryl to this place than the place itself. Memories of her ill mother, abusive father, and dissolved marriage allow the audience to key into Cheryl’s psychology to mixed results.
The constant barrage of mirage, wherein images of familial tragedy, her subsequent sexual misadventures, and heroin use are wound together in a hallucinatory montage, is both visually invigorating and occasionally didactic. There are moments when it feels like Vallee is afraid of boring the viewer with Cheryl’s lonesome environment. These are mere nitpicks, however, as Witherspoon anchors the film in a role that requires her to wear many faces, all of which she performs with a fearless, ego-less drive not even found in her June Carter: the sophisticated college student, the “experimentalist” with a chip on her shoulder, the stubborn drug addict, angry at the world and willing to say yes to anything in the name of pleasure. And of course, the woman gritting through a long and treacherous hike, simultaneously trying to forget and accept these memories that have made her the kind of person who can and will finish an 1100-mile adventure. Laura Dern gives poignancy to her brief scenes as Cheryl’s mother, the woman who, in the face of marital abuse and an unfinished education, raised her daughter to be that woman.
A film largely set in the trees isn’t complete without the right melodies, and Jean Marc-Vallee has accrued a wonderful soundtrack of angelic hymn and hippie tunes, songs that go a long way toward creating a suitable mood for those melancholic memories. In the end, “Wild” is about a woman seeking to recover herself from the ashes of burned bridges and torched potential. Perhaps Reese Witherspoon can relate. It certainly seems like it, giving the best performance of her career, and doing so in a manner that evokes the banner of “great actress” once again.