Sometimes a movie star issues a reminder of what got her or him to the top. Something to jog our memories about why the star differs from you and me, and also from that TV actor who is so talented but whose presence cannot fill a big screen.
“Wild” is Reese Witherspoon’s reminder, and a powerful one. As Cheryl Strayed, who walked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail at age 26 and years later wrote a memoir about it, Witherspoon strips it all away: the mascara, the sleek clothes and the romantic comedies in which she wore them.
Not just the bad romantic comedies, but “Legally Blonde,” too. Without sacrificing any magnetism, Witherspoon uncovers, in “Wild,” that fresh-faced yet unpredictable actress from “Freeway” and “Election.” She adds emotional wear and tear, and its physical counterpart, as Cheryl hikes through snow and searing heat, stopping occasionally to examine blistered feet.
Visually warm and luminous, and shot mostly in Oregon, often on the PCT, “Wild” feels more complete than a lot of star vehicles that are strong in lead performance but thin elsewhere.
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That is partly because Witherspoon’s performance, though multilayered and captivating, is not showy or obviously Oscar bait-y.
But this is a movie in which the only forward narrative movement is a woman walking, and Witherspoon plays that woman. So it counts as a star vehicle. But there are other big talents in the mix – director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and screenwriter Nick Hornby – who ensure it is a good movie as well.
Vallée acknowledges Witherspoon’s importance to his film by visually keeping to her character’s perspective on the trail. Rather than offer sweeping shots of mountain and sky, Vallée’s camera sticks to the stretches of ground Cheryl covers on a particular day, often highlighting Witherspoon’s smallness before a huge backdrop.
The movie also highlights Witherspoon’s physical vulnerability, starting with an scene in which Cheryl struggles with a heavy, stuffed-to-the-gills backpack. Cheryl is in a scrubby motel room in the Kern County desert town of Mojave, just about to start her trek to Oregon.
Cheryl tries several approaches before finally willing herself upright.
This scene is a smart choice by the filmmakers in several ways. It establishes Witherspoon as a human rather than a movie star. It also allows for Witherspoon to show, miles down the trail, how Cheryl’s physical confidence has progressed.
In addition, the scene immediately creates sympathy for a character whose story is potentially off-putting, given that she is trying to “fix” herself by hiking 1,100 miles after a period in which she slept with random men, did heroin and alienated her nice husband.
But before you eat-pray-hate it, know that Strayed came from the working class, put herself through college and fell into her more unruly behavior as an outlet for her grief and shock after losing her beloved mother (Laura Dern in the film) not long after the mother was diagnosed with cancer, when Strayed was 22.
Strayed’s PCT journey was a radical move by a truly interesting person, to realign her life. Strayed was no dilettante or New Age kook, but rather a compelling mess of a young woman who dabbled in debasement but preferred feminist theory. Most vital to her relatability, screen Cheryl, like book Cheryl, really loves her mama.
Witherspoon lets that love show throughout “Wild,” in the ache on her face just before Cheryl recalls her mother being sick to the willful, let’s-get-lost quality she brings to Cheryl’s most destructive moments, seen in flashback.
Strayed’s period of irresponsible behavior occurred in her early to mid-20s. Witherspoon is 38, an age when sex with two strangers in an alley in one’s waitress uniform does not indicate recklessness so much as pathology.
But the actress could pass for mid- to late 20s in “Wild.” That youthful look derives partly from her open facial expressions, partly from a wardrobe of shorts and simple T-shirts. “Wild” makeup specialist Robin Mathews, who won an Oscar for “Buyers Club,” also clearly worked some magic here, too.
Strayed’s book is dense as it describes meetings with her fellow hikers on the trail and dips into the writer’s past. Vallée and Hornby wisely excised most of the interactions with other hikers – “pack” talk is not very cinematic. The scenes of this type that remain are the film’s least interesting, and hold egregious product placement for an outdoor-gear retail chain that does not need the help.
But Hornby and Vallée focus more on Cheryl’s formative bonds, using highly effective flashback moments to break up scenes of Witherspoon alone on the trail.
“Wild” captures the quality of real-life thinking and walking, of the physical rhythm of movement sometimes dislodging random memories.
The flashbacks, lasting seconds or a few minutes, help maintain viewer interest but also serve as the appropriate vehicle for showing Cheryl’s lowest points. Though Witherspoon commits to these seedier moments, her eyes flashing defiance and deep need, such visual trips through the gutter are better for being short.
Dern appears in the flashbacks, crafting a rich portrait of Cheryl’s mother despite getting perhaps 10 minutes of screen time total. Dern puts her bittersweet smile to use in a scene in which the mom, optimistic despite the family’s humble circumstances, withstands her daughter’s comment that she should not be so happy considering how poor they are. The exchange also lets Witherspoon show another side to Cheryl – one that was not so freewheeling.
Dern is 47, but she and Witherspoon seem like mother and daughter in “Wild,” thanks to makeup, shadowy cinematography and fine acting by both. Thomas Sadoski, as Cheryl’s former husband, and Gaby Hoffmann, as a straight-talking pal who urges Cheryl, at Cheryl’s lowest point, to get it together, also make positive impressions.
But they are not strong impressions, because they are not on screen long enough for that. Nevertheless, they support Witherspoon’s performance in a way a water bottle and lightweight camp stove support a hiker.
In the way there are signs of community on a trail even when one does not come across a fellow hiker, “Wild” feels like a community effort. And Witherspoon is part of that community.
She ably imparts her character’s extraordinary experiences while always coexisting – and never competing – with the landscape on the PCT, and within the film. That’s the true mark of movie star: knowing when to turn it on and when to serve the story.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Rated R (sexual content, nudity, drug use, language)