dir Jean-Marc Vallee
scr Nick Hornby
prd Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea
with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Gaby Hoffmann, Keene McRae, Kevin Rankin, W Earl Brown, Brian Van Holt, Michiel Huisman, Cathryn de Prume, Mo McRae, Charles Baker
release US 5.Dec.14, UK 16.Jan.14
14/US Fox 1h55
The great ourdoors: Witherspoon

dern sadowski hoffman
london film fest
R E V I E W    B Y    R I C H    C L I N E
Wild Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this film depicts her journey as launching with a badly overstuffed backpack, which is just the first metaphor in this overstuffed thematic odyssey. Fortunately, it's directed with skill and artful insight by Vallee and acted with rare transparency by Witherspoon. The trick is to not let the onslaught of aphorisms weigh you down.

As Cheryl (Witherspoon) sets out to hike a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, she is clearly hoping to dispel some inner demons. A novice hiker, over the next 100 days she will have to become an expert to survive deserts, mountains, snow and rain. But she is tenaciously focussed on the task, which allows her to sort through memories of her mother (Dern), ex-husband (Sadoski), younger brother (McRae) and best friend (Hoffmann). She also meets several helpful and/or menacing people along the trail.

Intriguingly, Hornby's script starts with a blank slate then dribbles the details of Cheryl's past slowly throughout the film, eventually bringing everything into a slightly too-clear focus: basically, her rampant promiscuity and hard drug use were an expression of grief. Thankfully, Vallee never makes any of this too sordid, letting Cheryl unapologetically enjoy sex and drugs, which are a symptom of her self-destruction, not the cause of it.

In this sense, Witherspoon's performance might be a bit too clear-eyed, but she brings out remarkable depth in this feisty woman of indeterminate age. The ever-girlish 38-year-old Witherspoon plays Strayed from about 18 to around 27 (Strayed's age when she made the trek). Witherspoon invests the role with gritty humour, a snappy temper and a vivid combination of paranoia and temerity. It's as if the constant sense of menace is comforting. This alone makes the film far more insightful than Eat Pray Love, even if it's never as haunting as Into the Wild.

There are so many ideas swirling around both on the surface (a painfully obvious on-screen Robert Frost quote) and in the margins that the audience never quite knows where to look. Is this an exploration of the catharsis of grief? A parable about the circle of life? Or perhaps the realisation that our experiences are essential parts of who we are? All of this is comforting, but the film's sharpest point is that nothing we do now changes our past: we've always been redeemed.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality, grisliness, drugs 13.Oct.14

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