01 January 2015

True Stories, Part I: The Wanderer

Wild     ★★★★

A Review by Kevin Powers

Think about your life: your losses, your loves, your family, your happiness, your sadness, your problems.

Now. Imagine hiking a thousand miles in the wilderness alone. Imagine what your thoughts, your inner monologue might be. That is the essence of director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, an adaptation of the real life memoirs of Cheryl Strayed.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) was a woman, like so many, who grew up the child of a single parent, a mother named Bobbi (Laura Dern), seeking refuge from an abusive husband. When her mother died, Cheryl and her brother, Leif (Keene McRae), were left, like so many, to figure out how to pick up the pieces of a broken life.

For Cheryl, the biggest piece was a husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Even their love could not overcome Cheryl’s loss. Cheryl turned to drugs and promiscuity, effectively ending her marriage. Left with nothing, she turns to the Pacific Coast Trail. And that’s where this movie begins.

The largest part of the running time of Wild is a woman battling herself internally as she braves the external brutality of nature. The life story I so succinctly summarized into two short paragraphs is much more immense and given to us as glints of memory and poetry running through the mind of a hiker, a wanderer. These memories are out of order. Such is the perfection this film obtains.

To give you an idea of the power of this movie, I will recap the opening scene, which shook me to my core. A woman, our heroine, hikes to the top of a small, rocky peak in California. She sits down and takes off her boots, revealing toes mangled and bloody. To psyche herself up enough to remove her bloody socks, she recites a line from a familiar song, “I’d rather be a hammer than a nail.” It’s Simon and Garfunkel. The musical intro to that very song (“El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”) plays on the soundtrack. It’s muffled as if playing through a stereo inside someone’s memory. A quick montage of scenes from a life streaming together to end with a title card, way in the distance. I went, “Wow!” under my breath.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s wish, seemingly, is to tell stories about real life. He is, to me, the ultimate realist in movies today. After last year’s great true story, Dallas Buyers Club, which won its stars, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, the big prizes on Oscar Sunday, Vallée has outdone himself with Wild.

That opening sequence is merely one of many awe-inducing revelations. This movie is the perfect moving blend of sound and image. I would be interested to read the real Cheryl Strayed’s book, because the way this movie is crafted is unique and brilliant. I imagine it must have been a challenge for screenwriter Nick Hornby to tackle such a disjointed story. It is no wonder that Vallée co-edited the film himself. You can sense the personal connections among source material, filmmakers, and star.

Through Vallée’s camera we see Cheryl, and through Cheryl we see ourselves. We live her pain in the present and her happiness in the past, and vice versa. We delight in the few kind souls she meets along the way and feel her fear in the few that aren't so kind. In the end, we are left to see her future.

Reese Witherspoon is the catalyst of these emotions. They are on her face, in her voice, through her mannerisms, dripping like the tears from her eyes. It is a great performance. Likewise, even though fleeting, the supporting cast works well within certain limitations. Laura Dern gives a near career best performance in a very short amount of screen time.

Very rarely does a movie grasp not only the way people think to themselves but also the way memories appear and vanish never in chronological order. The pains of life only make our memories more disjointed, right? That’s what this movie does. And it does it to perfection.

Jean-Marc Vallée's Wild is not only a meditation of human thought and experience, but it is also a love letter to nature and the beauty we should all try to find in it.


  1. Great review. I agree as well. I really enjoyed it. I worried it would be an over done "I-overcame-addiction" story, but it wasn't. Very realistic.

    1. It certainly didn't belittle itself by being solely about addiction. This movie is about how hard (and beautiful) life is...period.

  2. Nice review! I enjoyed this one so much more than I was expecting to.

    1. Thanks. I really did as well. A guy I follow on Instagram really praised it, so that was my push to get to it quickly. It went well above and beyond what I expected.