TIFF Review: 'Wild'

(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Jean-Marc Vallée, Writ. Nick Hornby
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadowski, Gaby Hoffman.
Reese Witherspoon stars in Wild. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

“God is a ruthless bitch,” writes Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) as she makes her mark in one of the many trail logs she signs whilst hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. Cheryl’s smart, snappy epigraph joins a roster of quotes from famous cultural figures—Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, Joni Mitchell—to mark her journey, but it’s Strayed’s own words that best summarize her adventure. Wild is, after all, based on Strayed’s best-selling, Oprah-endorsed, and exceptionally-powerful book, so it’s fitting that this page-to-screen adventure lets the author leave her mark on the world with her own words as part of the journey. Make no mistake, though: Wild is an utterly cinematic ride. This is how you do a great adaptation.

Every ounce of power, honesty, humour, and insight from Strayed’s book comes intensely to life thanks to the terrifically focused screenplay by Nick Hornby (screenwriter of An Education and author himself of High Fidelity, A Long Way Down, etc.) and the kaleidoscopic vision of Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Café de flore, Dallas Buyers Club). Wild is a powerful journey, a transformative one, as the film pieces Strayed’s life and story together in one solid portrait. Wild vividly realizes Strayed’s rich, clear prose every step of the way.

Wild, just as Strayed does in her book, hooks the viewer from its intense and visceral opening scene. Cheryl is in the midst of her hike—bruised, battered, and suffering from broken toenails—when she loses one of her undersized boots to the rocky ravine and, in a moment of fatigued restlessness, she hurls the other boot into the horizon, drops an F-bomb, and screams into the wild. The scene is a stark, funny, and captivating lead into the story it frames.

At the forefront of this journey is Witherspoon’s note-perfect turn as Strayed. (The author herself actually makes a cameo appearance as the truck driver who first brings Cheryl to the PCT.) Witherspoon completely deglamourizes for the role as she walks the trail with nary an ounce of make-up—save for dirt, cuts, and bruises—and every small crease on her face and each bag under her eyes lends a wealth of authority and experience to this performance. Wild offers an intense physical role, yet Witherspoon matches the emotional demands of the performance just as impressively as she walks the line of the PCT lugging Cheryl’s comically oversized backpack. (Yes, Wild fans: Monster makes the cut!)

Witherspoon, at a youthful 38, fits the role just right playing Strayed at the age of 27 when she embarks on her quest in 1995 and in earlier years during Strayed’s young adulthood in school and at home with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Witherspoon brings a spunkiness to the role that feels like the perfect incarnation of Strayed’s lucid and accessible voice. Cheryl’s ineffable likability as she hikes the PCT makes the jarring flashbacks to the episodes of drug abuse, promiscuity, and overall recklessness that precede her journey doubly effective as Witherspoon creates Cheryl both lost and found. She throws herself into the role with remarkable abandon. Simply put, Wild offers one of the best performances of Witherspoon’s career.

Dern is equally memorable in her turn as Bobbi. Bobbi appears mostly in flashing, flighty shards that punctuate Cheryl’s journey, yet the warmth, spirit, and lust for life that Dern brings to this performance makes Bobbi an implied presence throughout much of the film. Even when Bobbi appears only in fleeting images, one feels her spirit even when she isn’t in the frame. This aspect of Wild is essential and part of the adaptation’s success since Hornby’s meticulously crafted script delays much of Cheryl’s reminiscences of her mother’s fight with cancer and uses Bobbi’s spirit to motivate and move Cheryl during the final stretch of her journey. 

The real star of Wild, despite the greatness of the performances and the strength of the screenplay, might be the phenomenal tapestry of the editing that brings the film to life. Vallée cuts the film under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy (as he did for Dallas Buyers Club) and partners again with collaborator Martin Pensa, and their work from the editing room is a jolt of life. Quick flashes and fragments are interspersed throughout the film as Wild deftly cuts between past and present. The rapid-fire associative editing conveys Cheryl’s motivation for undertaking this personal odyssey and blurs past and present as her memories prompt her along the way.

The delicate dance with Bobbi is a highlight of the cutting, as is the richly symbolic fox that watches over Cheryl on the PCT, but there’s clearly a higher level of artistry behind the bracing tempo of Wild. The actions, sounds, and images are so precisely choreographed and cut together that multiple shots, settings, and temporalities align with fluid skill. Ample credit is equally due to DP Yves Bélanger, who makes sumptuously warming use of the natural light and landscape, plus the incredible soundtrack that complements the energy and catharsis of Witherspoon’s lively performance. The pulse of Wild is thrilling. Wild, in its own way, is a ruthless bitch of a film, for it is bold, visceral, and almost physical in its ability to move you.

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

Wild screens:
-Monday, Sept. 8 at 9:00 pm at Roy Thomson Hall
-Tuesday, Sept. 9 at 11:30 am at the VISA Screening Room
-Friday, Sept. 12 at 3:00 pm at the Princess of Wales Theatre.

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.
Update: Wild opens in Ottawa on Dec. 19.


*Check back for a feature interview with Jean-Marc Vallée and Laura Dern!*