Review by © Jane Freebury

Wild opens at the top of a rocky outcrop in stunning mountain wilderness. If the lone hiker who has earned herself the view is going to walk on, she’ll have to do something about the pain in her big toe. Out comes the nail but at the same time her boot goes tumbling down below. She chucks the other boot after it and lets out a primal scream for everything that went wrong with her life. It’s a great start.

The journey is, of course, well underway. A trek through thousands of kilometres of wilderness along the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada. The mantra ‘I can quit any time’ had long ceased to have any meaning for Cheryl Strayed, the author and trekker played by Reese Witherspoon, and there was no turning back on this self-inflicted journey. Despite the forks in the road she could have taken. We can only wonder how the real Cheryl did it, setting out without trekking experience, without any prep training, and with a pair of boots a size too small.

On the trail she walked alone and in silence but we hear Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, etc on the soundtrack rich with recent pop memory. It reminded me that when I interviewed the Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee in 2012 he acknowledged he was something of a frustrated DJ.
All Cheryl has is a loop of painful memories—her mother’s death to cancer, a recent divorce, a lot of casual sex and heroin addiction. All come crowding in, but are told in crisply edited flashback. It’s one hell of a backstory, deftly inserted in the present, and the indomitable Witherspoon is great in her role. Here Vallee has directed her to some of her best work since Walk the Line.

It was a tremendous tribute to director Vallee, the director of Dallas Buyers Club, that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won best actor and best support actor Oscars last year. Under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy (Hullo Jack Nicholson!), Vallee also achieved an Oscar nomination for editing on Dallas Buyers Club with Martin Pensa.

The dramatic tension evoked in Wild comes from our anxiety that this is an attractive young woman alone in the wilderness. If she isn’t going to topple over trying to walk under that enormous backpack—huge on Witherspoon who stands at only 1.56 metres—then surely there’ll be an encounter with some kind of predator, beast or human.

This young woman’s journey back to health walking the spine of the west US is as much about ridding the mind of its demons as it’s about a gruelling trek. It’s an interior mission deftly and sensitively told with a terrific central performance.

In a capsule: A terrific evocation of a journey of body and spirit as a young woman treks the US Pacific coast alone, brought home by a strong performance from Reese Witherspoon.

4 stars