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“Wild”: A Pleasant Hike Without the Payoff

Thanks to the Starz Denver Film Festival, running through November 23, one editor got an early look at the much-anticipated movie, Wild.

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Before you get too far into this review, reader, I must tell you something: I pretty much always prefer the book version to its movie counterparts. That sentiment remains true in the case of Wild, which is based on Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir of the same name. But I will do my best to focus my commentary on the big screen.

As in the book, Wild opens with Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) accidentally knocking one of her hiking boots off a mountain. (For those not familiar with the basic plot, Wild chronicles Strayed’s 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to move past the heartbreaking death of her mother and some subsequently poor decision-making.) She screams. She stares. She throws her other boot down the ravine, exasperated. And now she has to figure out how to hike to the next town without that necessary equipment. It’s in this scene that Witherspoon and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer’s Club) best depict the challenges, the frustrations, and the growth that can only come from interacting with Mother Nature. If only that focus had remained throughout the rest of the film.

(In a movie mood? The Starz Denver Film Festival is still in town. See our top picks.)

Though viewers will be engrossed in Strayed’s personal story (as I was), Wild falls short on the outdoors aspects of the story. The Pacific Crest Trail should be a main character in the film. Instead, it’s relegated to supporting cast. The hardships that come with hiking the PCT serve as the heartbeat of Strayed’s memoir, the lifeblood that leads to her achieving forgiveness for herself. When Vallée focuses his camera on Witherspoon’s Strayed not knowing how to put up her tent or buying the wrong type of gas for her camping stove—mistakes that are true to her story but more about lack of preparation (albeit important commentary on Strayed’s impulsive nature) than the general difficulty of the trip—he misses the bigger picture. And when the strain of hiking alone is depicted only through funny quips from Witherspoon and a creepy scene with an overly familiar male hunter (again, true to the memoir), it only furthers the director’s lack of understanding that the PCT is just the beginning of Strayed’s story, not the conclusion. (Another pet peeve: Though she’s mostly hiking in the desert, Witherspoon’s skin is always clear and fair. How is she never sunburnt?)

Witherspoon does give an earnest and commendable performance—as do Laura Dern as her mother and Thomas Sadoski as her ex-husband—but the Academy Award buzz surrounding her performance seems a bit unfounded. (Hollywood actress deserves Oscar for not wearing makeup, getting dirty, and being outside a lot!) Regardless, fans of Strayed’s book (or of Witherspoon) will find this a fair depiction, and newcomers will, at the very least, enjoy getting a peek into Strayed’s complicated and imperfect life.

Catch Wild when it premieres in Colorado next month, and let us know what you think.

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