“Wild” is visually striking but lacks character depth

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“Wild” is a wilderness drama about a woman’s journey from the depths of self-destruction to the heights of self–discovery. In an attempt to salvage her life, which is ravaged by drug addiction and nymphomania, Cheryl Strayed endeavors to complete an 1,100-mile trek from southern California to Washington on the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfolding with a smattering of comedy and an abundance of drama, “Wild” makes an amazing story ripe with raw emotional power and produces a film that is sporadically dynamic.

Starring in her first serious production in years, Reese Witherspoon bites off more than she can chew. Only convincing in a few scenes, in which she portrays a college student full of angst and pretension for her wildly optimistic mother, Witherspoon does not fit the part of the hardened drug addict or the ill–prepared but determined hiker. It is unfortunate that “Wild” is predominantly a one-woman show because the supporting cast performs well with the little screen time they are afforded. Laura Dern nails her part as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi, Thomas Sadoski makes for an excellent ex–husband, Paul, and Keene McRae’s character, Leif, drives many of the more provocative scenes. But in Witherspoon’s defense, the film’s structure does not allow her to develop a strong emotional character.

Following the nonlinear narrative trope common amongst modern films, “Wild” skips between scenes of Cheryl’s trek and the traumatic events that led to it. Unfortunately, in its realization, the achronological sequence of scenes does not feel emotionally cohesive. What’s more, early on in the film a trailer-like montage of scenes reveals all of the major plot developments and the most visually evocative images in store for the viewer. This shortcoming of structure, paired with minimalist dialogue, gives Witherspoon little opportunity to impress and is culpable in part for her lackluster performance.

Despite these imperfections, “Wild” still has some visceral scenes. The film is at its strongest during the quiet moments in which director Jean-Marc Vallée allows viewers to immerse themselves in the setting. The imposing power of stark deserts, pristine meadows and towering forests intermittently juxtaposed with the chaotic hustle of cityscapes endows the environments with distinct personality, allowing them to act as characters themselves. However, the most moving scene in the movie is one in which Cheryl discusses the nature of loss and hardship with a child, who then shares a rendition of “Red River Valley” that will stick with me long after I forget the rest of the film. This scene alone makes the movie worth its dragging 115-minute run time.

“Wild” has its moments. I admit that as I left the theater I could not help but feel a little disappointed, but that said, I am still glad I saw it. I recommend “Wild” to moviegoers looking for a dramatic film about personal struggle and triumph or those looking to be wowed by the majesty of nature.

s.stafsholt@chronicle.utah.edu

@ChronyArts

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