It’s apparently a coincidence that Wild shares a similar name and plot to one of my favourite movies of all time, 2007’s Into the Wild. In both films, the protagonist ventures on a solo expedition into the harsh wilderness that doubles as a journey of self discovery and personal realisation.
And so my impression of Wild could have gone one of two ways — I knew I would have either loved because it features the same strengths as Into the Wild, or hated it for being basically a shittier female version of the same story.
Fortunately, it was the former. While it’s true that Wild does have the same raw (wo)man-vs-wild feel and natural beauty of Into the Wild, it’s actually a very different movie with a very different journey.
Reece Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to embark on the arduous Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,000-plus-mile hike across the country. But she’s not a hiking enthusiast and has zero experience or developed survival skills to cope with the unforgiving weather that will make your skin burn and crack, the brutal terrain that will make your feet bleed, and the dangers of wild animals and creeps lurking at every corner. So the question is: why? Why the heck would anyone torture themselves by taking on a challenge like this?
Answering that question is what Wild sets out to do. It’s not a neatly wrapped answer either, but one that fits together like pieces of a complex puzzle. These pieces are unveiled one at a time through Nick Hornby’s remarkable script, which eschews screenwriting conventions by relying heavily on flashbacks to tell Cheryl’s story.
One of the first lessons I learned in screenwriting class is to avoid using too many flashbacks, which tend to draw audiences away from the immediacy of the present. In Wild, however, about half the narrative is told through short bursts of Cheryl’s past, from her childhood all the way to just before she commences her journey — all in non-linear fashion. They work here by presenting a shocking contrast between various stages of her life and helping us understand why she felt it was necessary for her to persist with what she set out to achieve.
The constant throughout Cheryl’s life is her mother Bobbi, played with a subtle strength and inner beauty by Laura Dern, who earned a deserved Best Supporting Actress nomination alongside Witherspoon’s second Best Actress nod (after she won it for Walk the Line). Witherspoon reportedly had no make up on for the vast majority of the movie, but to be honest I didn’t think it was a big deal because celebrities these days take such good care of themselves that she looks better than most people her age even at what’s supposed to be her very worst.
Into the Wild is about a young man’s ideals and learning about what it means to be alive, whereas Wild is about a slightly more mature woman seeking to rediscover who she is. Rather than hopes and dreams, it’s about dealing with pain, loss and regret, though the message is ultimately an uplifting one. It isn’t quite as edgy as I’ve made it sound, and it didn’t — for whatever reason — have the same level of resonance for me as Into the Wild, but Wild is still a highly engaging and moving drama elevated by two of the year’s best performances.
4.25 stars out of 5