TELLURIDE – There is a moment near the end of “Wild” where Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) runs into a young boy and his grandmother out on a weekend hike. Strayed has walked hundreds of miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in an attempt to deal with personal, emotional pain that has plagued her most of her young adult life. After learning of Strayed's heartbreaks the young boy (Evan O'Toole) sings her the song “Red River Valley.” In the hands of a lesser director this scene could have been overly saccharine and misplaced. But director Jean-Marc Vallée makes it as artful and touching as it needs to be. Clearly, we should not have doubted him.
Vallée was one of the main creative forces of “Dallas Buyers Club,” but did not earn a Best Director Oscar nod. Instead, he made due with an editing nomination. This was disheartening in some respects because there was not a public appearance that went by where the film's producers would not do everything possible to give him credit for making “Dallas” the artistic success it turned out to be. That film's storyline could have easily been shot as, for lack of a better description, an HBO movie. Instead, Vallée used the film's low budget means and superb performances to transform it into something that transcended its genre. In many ways, he does the same with “Wild.”
If you think about it, a movie that follows a hero on a gigantic trek is something you've probably seen before. It's the major conceit of the road trip genre. “Into the Wild,” “The Straight Story,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Broken Flowers” are some recent prestige examples (and Fox Searchlight's own “127 Hours” spent most of its screen time in the wilderness as well). Thanks to a powerhouse performance by Reese Witherspoon (more on that later), Vallée succeeds in avoiding those potential cliches again and again and again. It's no easy feat. And Nick Hornby, the “About a Boy” novelist and “An Education” screenwriter, delivers a screenplay which utilizes a flashback structure that easily could have gone off the rails, but doesn't.
Of course, Vallée's fuel in bringing Strayed's 2012 memoir to life is his leading lady, Witherspoon. The 38-year-old actress developed “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” and it's clear she's deeply invested in its story. After going through a painful divorce and drug and sex addiction, Strayed took a life-changing journey on the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon. Vallée and Hornby use the flashbacks of the film to contrast Strayed's difficulty on the trail with the dramatic experiences of her past, but they would be nowhere without Witherspoon, who gives it her all in the “present.” She gets dirty, she wades through creeks, she shows the extreme exhaustion of such a major trek, but it's in the flashbacks that she truly shines. Often playing almost half her age, she has to bring Strayed to rock bottom in what could be constituted as a second arc for the character. Witherspoon is so good many will argue this is the best performance of her career. That may not be giving her work in “Mud” and “Walk the Line” its due, but “Wild” is clearly her most transformative work to date.
“Wild” is also assisted by fine supporting work from Laura Dern, as Witherspoon's mother, who is integral to Vallée's flashback structure. Thomas Sadoski (“The Newsroom”) also deserves kudos for making Strayed's ex-husband Paul an intriguing character in his own right with very little screen time.
Director of photography Yves Bélanger, who previously collaborated with Vallée on “Dallas,” brings a wondrous scope to Strayed's journey and makes sure Witherspoon looks as rough as the story requires.
For those curious about the film's awards season prospects, Witherspoon clearly moves to the front of the pack of Best Actress contenders. Dern has a shot for Best Supporting Actress depending on the field, and Hornby could find himself with his second Best Adapted Screenplay nomination. “Wild's” Best Picture nomination prospects will depend on Fox Searchlight's ability to channel a passionate fan base for the film. Judging by the women crying at the end on either side of this writer, they are certainly out there.
“Wild” opens in limited release on Dec. 5.