If "Foxcatcher" presents a tragedy of lofty aspirations gone horribly wrong, "Wild" gives audiences an inspirational tale of finding strength from within. While director Jean-Marc Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club," left me cold, his new film is intimate and honest in a way that that film wanted to be but never was. Stripped of her usual pluckiness, Reese Witherspoon portrays Cheryl Strayed, a young woman who decides to hike 1000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, taking her from Mexico to Canada over the course of a three-month journey (the film is based on Strayed's own memoir, adapted by author Nick Hornby).
Using cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue and images, Vallée visualizes Strayed's inner thoughts, showing us her memories as they echo through her mind, filling us in on the experiences which led her down this path. Strayed is at the tail end of a downward spiral that ended with the dissolution of her marriage, brought on by her compulsive cheating and nasty heroin habit. These behaviors were all methods she utilized to cope with the death of her beloved mother (a fantastic Laura Dern); the hike is her attempt to find herself again, and unburden herself of the emotional baggage which nearly succeeded in burying her completely.
The film's early going earns a lot of laughs through Strayed's inexperience (her comically overstuffed backpack becomes legendary amongst her fellow hikers, who dub it "the monster"), and gains power as it charts her progress toward self-acceptance. Witherspoon embraces the darkness and gives a remarkable performance, letting us see the actress in a new light; Strayed is a mess in a way that the actress has never allowed audiences to see before (Witherspoon named her production company "Type A" for a reason). She's frequently unlikable and in many of the flashbacks she's hard on her mother, critiquing her choices and the way she maintains an optimistic (Cheryl calls it naive) outlook even when facing down some of the worst that life has to offer.
Though it ends with a voiceover from Strayed that's a little too heavy-handed in spelling out the movie's themes, Hornby's screenplay mostly succeeds in sidestepping the saccharine aspects that weigh down lesser "uplifting" films. Anchored by Witherspoon's great work, "Wild" emerges is an incredibly moving portrayal of a person's capability to overcome seemingly insurmountable grief and come out the other side all the stronger for it.