TL;DR – Not every story moves so easily into the visual medium of film. Wild started as a New York Times bestseller and, in true Hollywood fashion, was made into a film. Unfortunately, an Oscar-nominated director and an Oscar-winning lead actress aren’t enough to save a film completely bereft of any plot. If I’m being completely honest, it’s not worth the price of a ticket.
Of all of the films I’ve reviewed, this is the first one to which I’m giving a hard and fast “don’t even bother.” And yes, I’ve read the other reviews and I know I’m standing alone a little island when I say this. If others enjoyed it, good for them. I didn’t.
Wild is based on the memoirs of the real Cheryl Strayed (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) who hiked over 1,000 miles through the Mojave Desert. It is, at its core, a character piece. Character pieces are generally sparser on plot and rightfully so; you don’t want an excessive number of plot points to cloud the character’s development and haze the arc they traverse through their journey in the film. But character pieces still need a plotline or the characters stand there doing nothing. The plot for this film is this: Cheryl walks through the desert. That’s it; she walks through the desert. Sure, there’s a whole thing with her mother dying of cancer and the relationship with her brother becoming strained because of it. She divorces her husband after a string of flings imbued by a heroin addiction. These are nice things to show how far from grace she’s fallen and how this trek is going to pull her back up to become the woman her mother wanted her to be, but they’re not enough to make the movie interesting.
Now, diatribe aside, there are some redeeming qualities to the film. Oscar-nominated director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) does what he does very well, albeit strangely in parts. He frames his shots creatively and puts the camera in the right direction at the right moment to sell the bit of the story he’s trying to show off. It’s admirable how well he is able to work around an otherwise unworkable story to create something at least visually viable. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger works well with Vallée to paint a very vivid picture which is, at times, too colorful. The film is about a woman’s struggle with a very real physical obstacle. A bit more drab and drear would have sold the visual aspect a little more but I appreciate the fact that the picture is crisp and clear; cinematography is hard to make look good but almost any film school reject can accidently make a picture look too drab. The editing is often decent but at times very strange and a little too jarring to take seriously. Too many echoes are added to voices to create the hollowness of the flashbacks that make up almost half of the movie.
The star player of the film is Reese Witherspoon’s well-deserved Golden Globe nominated performance. Amongst a sea of otherwise unworkable mistakes in a film, she manages to shine in a role that is both physically demanding and emotionally draining while still somehow making it look effortless. The irony is that the role is anything but effortless but she still never lets herself slip out of character. Another less-capable actress and this film would have easily been trash-worthy, as she’s just about the only redeemable thing in it.
I want to be clear about something, however. I’m not tearing into this for the sake of being one of “those” film critics (the woman from Birdman comes to mind, although she critiqued Broadway aaaaand…digression over). Cheryl Strayed’s story is actually very interesting and well worth telling. But it started as a book and it needed to end there. Not every New York Times bestseller needs to be made into a film and this one should, in my opinion, become the archetype for selling that argument. It’s a great story, to be sure, but one that shouldn’t have been made into a film.
Final thought: at one point in the movie, Cheryl says the line “I’m desperate for this to be over” and I caught myself saying “me too.”
Final grade: D+