Narratively, the film conveys a back-and-forth between Cheryl’s hike and her past. 

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Just as Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is proverbially cleansed by a baptism of tears, blood and foot sores, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild encapsulates one with a feel-good, yet believable catharsis.

In doing so, the film distances itself from the typical inspiration gradient. Rather, a steady rubric of temperament through trauma rewards without saturation as the trials of the troubled heroine are endured intimately by the audience throughout her trek of the northwest. Likewise, Reese Witherspoon’s performance polymerizes the tragedy of Charlize Theron’s Aileen Wournos (Monster) with the optimism of Emile Hirsch’s Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild).

Based on the autobiographical novel of the same name, Wild follows Cheryl Strayed down the depths of a broken marriage, through the peak of severe substance abuse and emotional trauma and finally along the journey of rehabilitation. The aforementioned trek materializes in the form of the Pacific Crest Trail, a thousand-mile endeavor built on the notion of extreme detoxification. Estranged and in desperate need of a reboot, Cheryl battles haunting visions and ghastly memories of a life frothing with loss. Eventually, a tangible goal is fathomed: A spiritual release at Oregon’s Bridge of the Gods.

Narratively, the film conveys a back-and-forth between Cheryl’s hike and her past. Via careful placement of psychological triggers, Cheryl is hurled in reverse through an Aronofsky-esque downward spiral.  The piece’s movements are appropriately paralleled by Cheryl’s hike.

Within an arid desert, the protagonist recalls her compromised marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadoski). Once mountainous tundra is obtained, Cheryl shifts her attention to her late mother (Laura Dern), abruptly lost to a bout with spinal cancer. Eventually, the woman’s march through a woodland bog leads her to self-reflection upon familiar abuse, developed nymphomania and, perhaps most pressing, perilous drug use.

This structure, compounded by exceptional editing, allows the film a form of accessibility usually unheard of considering its content.

Stewing at the heart of this work also lays a struggle of will. Periodically, Cheryl encounters men of little refrain, making haste to comment on her intellect, habits and physical composition. Likewise, Cheryl’s lack of control over her loved ones, specifically her ex-husband and mother, as well as an addiction to heroin use drives much of the film’s primary conflict. However, the fracturing of such an expectation propels the character’s development forward — not only through a resolve to renovate but also to simply accept what has already occurred. In other words, the shadow of trauma becomes a comforting shade that can be engaged and dissipated at will.

As mentioned before, the locales of Wild serve as the focal point as well as a thematic supplement. The vast emptiness of the Sierra Nevada gives way to the intricacy of the Cascade Mountain Range, and the piercing of one pain — physical and mental — gives way to a new form of the like. The film was often shot from a distance, and the lone figure of Cheryl traverses subtly like a fly across the painting of the landscape. Closer to the piece’s conclusion, the lens is placed closer to Cheryl, as if to emulate the proverbial proximity the audience may share with the traveler at that point.

This closeness would be difficult to achieve, however, without the seemingly natural performance of Witherspoon.

Bruised and the perpetual underdog, Cheryl is exemplified and realized by the actress’s inherent charm. However, similar to Theron’s role in Monster, Witherspoon turns to intensity on a dime; often, both her desperate wales and somber whimpers encourage a resounding shudder inside all within earshot. In contrast, Dern’s brief appearances offset the frequent fits of pessimism Cheryl puts forth. In doing so, Dern furnishes a parental role on par with, though not nearly as present as, Patricia Arquette’s performance in Boyhood, released earlier this year.

Of course, the nature of this character study places the focus firmly at Witherspoon’s feet, to a tremendous effect.

At times, Wild leaves one almost as exhausted as its central figure. However, the emotional derby is paced adequately, sprinkling periodic glimmers of hope in an almost utterly dire scenario. Persistence is frequently rewarded, and the minute victories, such as Cheryl obtaining a more comfortable pair of boots, feel like momentous triumphs.

In a year flooded with titans of film, Wild contends that a seemingly annual formula can still be used to cultivate spiritual nourishment. Ironically, Cheryl Strayed’s cinematic voyage through impeccable heat and frigid cold leaves the heart uniquely cozy.

Print headline: Wild triumphs, In Wild, Reese Witherspoon takes the audience through a rebirth that might leave you reeling.

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