The Pacific Crest Trail stretches from Mexico to Canada and is over 2,600 miles long. This long stretch of trail is where Cheryl Strayed came to terms with all of the problems in her life and eventually moved on from the tragedies that plagued her past. Based on Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild is an adaptation of her journey and a great showcase for Resse Witherspoon’s lead performance. As Strayed, Witherspoon must have her character tackle a bunch of heavy subjects, including the death of a loved one, drug addiction and the destruction of a marriage. She believably inhabits all of the character’s situations, while also bringing a sense of sweetness and vulnerability that allow us to care for her. In his follow up to the Oscar winning Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s newest film also features a great lead performance, but it ulitimately fails to reach any level of greatness. Here’s a good film that’s consistently engaging from beginning to end, even though Strayed’s journey isn’t particularly interesting on reflection.

Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) hasn’t had the easiest life. Her father was an abusive husband and her mother (Laura Dern) passed away from a short battle with cancer. After the death of her mother, Cheryl completely threw herself off the deep end, resorting to heavy drugs and sexual intercourse with strangers to drown out the pain. All of this eventually ruined her marriage with her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), so they ended up getting a divorce. Now, Cheryl’s determined to get her life back on track and she’s going to do that by hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. But she’ll be taking the journey alone and she has no idea how difficult this adventure will be.

This is Witherspoon’s show all the way and she totally devotes herself to every facet of the performances. The hiking alone makes this a very physical performance and it’s great to watch her slowly get better as the journey progresses. From the film’s opening scene where Strayed screams out of frustration after dropping her shoe down the side of the mountain, to her reaction after learning of her mother’s death, to a scene towards the end of the film where she breaks down in the middle of the woods and lets out a much needed cry, Witherspoon never falters. The entire film is essentially an extended character study of how Strayed has gotten here and Witherspoon always makes her character interesting.

The only downside to this is that we learn pretty much everything that we need to know about Strayed’s character within the first 10 minutes of the film. And while her character is definitely further fleshed out as the film progresses, nothing particularly new is revealed, which can definitely be viewed as unfortunate for a film with such a heavy focus on character. Her past is told through flashbacks that interrupt her current hike and some of the moments in her past are definitely more interesting than others. Perhaps one of the best aspects of the film is Cheryl’s relationship with her mother, played warmheartedly by the excellent Laura Dern. They make for a believable mother and daughter and their relationship is crucial to the film’s success.

Nick Hornby’s screenplay does do a fine job of getting to the heart of who Strayed is and Vallée directs the film very well, giving it a raw and rugged look that perfectly suits the feel of the extended hike. But even though the film never feels dull in the moment, Strayed’s hike actually ends up being surprisingly uninteresting as a whole. She rarely runs into any major problems and she’s frequently surrounded by different hikers, thus removing the sense of isolation that could have made her journey more powerful. Most of the dilemmas that she runs into are resolved within a scene or two, so there’s rarely much worry about her safety. One scene where she is threatened by two men is somewhat effective, but the two men are so obviously “bad guys” that they could have been pulled straight out of a horror movie and feel very out of place in a film that portrays most of its characters as three-dimensional human beings. Sure, a situation like this would be undeniably scary, but the scene could have been more effective if the two men weren’t portrayed as evil redneck caricatures. A scene like this one tries to bring suspense and fear out of a journey that doesn’t appear to be very suspenseful or life threatening. This is a fine effort from Vallée and Witherspoon is great, but for a film that’s called Wild, it’s surprisingly tame.

Wild receives 3/4

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