It's been several years since Reese Witherspoon starred in a movie worth recommending, and a decade since she won her Oscar for playing June Carter Cash. Whether by choice or happenstance, she's been flying under the radar, making easy trifles like How Do You Know, This Means War, and that one about Robert Pattinson and a circus elephant.
But she comes roaring back to life in Wild, a raw portrait of a damaged woman who embarks on a 1,000-mile hike as a means of cleansing herself. Based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir (the movie rights to which Witherspoon optioned before it was even published), Wild may very well be a calculated attempt at reestablishing her bona fides. But calculated or not, it works: Witherspoon gives an unvarnished, all-in performance, free of vanity and entirely devoted to telling Strayed's grueling, triumphant story.
Wild, adapted by Nick Hornby and competently directed by Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club), begins with a glimpse of Cheryl many days into her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, her body exhausted and bruised, her feet bloody. She curses the wilderness, and we are inclined to curse it with her. As later visions of her pre-hike life will show, however, this is actually the healthiest she's been in some time.
With shocking matter-of-factness, Vallee reveals, piece by piece, the elements of Cheryl's screwed-up life. She and her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), have recently divorced because of Cheryl's indiscretions. We see snippets of memories with her blithe mother (Laura Dern), who falls ill at a tragically young age. Like bolts of lightning, there are flashes of heroin needles, sleazy hotel rooms, home pregnancy tests. Gradually we come to understand the hike as a means of spiritual rebirth.
It's a popular trail among hardcore hikers, covering deserts and mountains as it stretches across California, Oregon, and Washington. Cheryl is keenly aware that as a woman traveling solo, she faces risks that men generally don't, as demonstrated in an uneasy sequence with a rancher (W. Earl Brown) who offers her a ride when she runs out of camp-stove fuel. She has to be wary of him and all the other men she encounters along her journey. Some are openly malevolent, some want to help, and some want to help while also hoping they can seduce her. Flashbacks show Cheryl to be a woman in control of her own sexuality (with Gaby Hoffmann as her valued yet strangely ineffectual best friend), but here on the Pacific Crest Trail, she's vulnerable.
The film gets ponderous now and then, with hooey like a mystical fox that Cheryl sees as a symbol of her growing strength (or something), and some voice-over narration that's more flowery and eye-roll-inducing than it needs to be. It's also a little on-the-nose that her name is Cheryl Strayed, but I guess you can't fault a movie for its author's choice of pen names.
Without being anything like a screed or manifesto, Wild comes across as an empowering, emotional tale about a woman taking control of her downward-spiraling life. Many of her experiences are unique to womanhood, and some may only apply to Cheryl Strayed specifically. But there's also a universality to it, a sense that anyone, male or female, could find inspiration in Cheryl's it's-the-journey-not-the-destination story. Witherspoon must have found strength in it—this is one of the mostly finely tuned performances she's ever given.
Eric Snider is a contributing film critic and comedy writer. He tweets here.
This review was originally published during our coverage of the 2014 Telluride Film Festival.