At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I read this book way back when it was first published and didn’t overly love it. I’m wondering right now whether I hold books to an even higher standard than I do movies and believe that this is probably so. The book was written by Cheryl Strayed herself – an account of her time spent solo-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in order to slam the brakes on her self-destruction. I don’t think I liked the voice of Strayed, didn’t like her haughtiness, didn’t connect with her unapologetic ways. Luckily, this movie has undergone the Nick Hornby treatment and as a result, Strayed is a little more tolerable and the story a little more cohesive.
Reese Witherspoon plays the title character. She’s good. She’s good but she’s not great. It doesn’t feel like an overly-challenging role. As she hikes along, some loose association will jar her memory and we’ll receive another piece of the puzzle via flashback. She’s entirely believable in every scene, it’s just that no scene is particularly gripping. I enjoyed seeing her bare face exposed to us (did anyone else feel she looks like an Olsen twin without makeup?) but I didn’t really feel like it translated enough to an emotional vulnerability that seemed necessary in telling such a story. In fact, the “Nick Hornby treatment” that I started out being grateful for began to seem just a little too trite. The puzzle pieces fit together just a little too snugly. No one’s life path is that linear, and I felt that Witherspoon struggled with the script’s limitations.
Perhaps so did the director, because neither did I feel a connection with the vast and probably very beautiful landscapes. We never dwelled on them. They only existed as backdrop. The terrain was rough, certainly, but we never get a sense of it because the camera is always maddeningly smooth. None of the 1000 miles she treks through seem to be all that “Wild” but the thing about this movie is that the land should be Reese’s costar. Richard Brody, reviewer for The New Yorker, put it about as well as anyone could: “they don’t give Oscars for Best Mountains.” True. And after last year’s success with Dallas Buyer’s Club, it certainly feels like Jean-Marc Vallée is gunning for the Oscar by any means necessary.
I criticized the book for being too smug and the movie for being too glib. And maybe I’m just hard to please but there was a lot of story here, a lot of layers and potential depth but for some reason we stayed safely near the surface, and while I’d still place this film in the top 20% of 2014, I think it failed itself because it had all the ingredients to be much much better and wasn’t.