Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film of the Cheryl Strayed memoir about her experience hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, comes fast on the heels of his Dallas Buyers Club, for which Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars last year. I’m not yet convinced that Jean-Marc Vallee is a great filmmaker, but it’s clear that he’s able to get actors to relax into performances that feel raw, lived-in. Wild is ostensibly about Strayed’s grueling three-month hike from the U.S.-Mexico border to Canada, but it’s a meandering, impressionistic film that wanders in and out of memories and flashbacks, stitched together by snatches of popular songs and embroidered with quotations from Strayed’s literary influences (Adrienne Rich, Robert Frost, Joni Mitchell). Not all of the individual pieces work, but the whole thing hangs together to form a loose, jagged mosaic. Vallee’s willingness to leave some of the edges unfinished is to be commended in an age when so many films are scrubbed, color-corrected, digitally enhanced, and CGI-ed within an inch of their lives, or are otherwise made to hit a series of pre-fabricated emotional beats. Wild rambles.
The acting is similarly loose and unfussy. As Strayed, Reese Witherspoon is in nearly every scene of the film, but it’s such a low-key performance that you don’t quite realize how good she is until it’s over. It’s unglamorous—not because Witherspoon spends most of the movie looking tired, but because the performance doesn’t scream “look at me!” As Strayed’s late mother (she appears in flashback), Laura Dern is even better. Even in montage sequences when we don’t hear her say anything, she manages to channel the spirit of a big-hearted woman whose love of life depends upon her turning a blind eye to all of the ways in which the world has failed her. Dern has always had a knack for getting across emotions that almost seem so big and so powerful that her skinny, long-limbed body—all knees and elbows—can’t contain them; she always seems to be feeling things more deeply than anyone around her. Lurking on the edges of this film, sometimes haunting Strayed, sometimes spurring her on to the finish line, she makes a powerful specter.