Variety wrote a piece, at the halfway point of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, asking where all of the compelling parts for women have gone. Admittedly, by the same point of last year’s festival, we had seen such awards-worthy performances as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep in Blue Jasmine, Gravity and August: Osage County, respectively. And the growing conversation swirling around this year’s awards-bait output has spotlighted the obvious: The choice parts for actresses are slimmer, especially when stacked side-by-side with the embarrassment of male roles this season has enjoyed.
Jean-Marc Valle’s wonderful Wild, however, is doing what it can do reverse the current trend. An adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, Wild hands the perky, determined Reese Witherspoon her most complicated (and ultimately rewarding) role to date, playing a woman at a crossroads who embarks on a three-month solo hike up the Pacific Crest Trail – a nature path that runs from Mexico to Canada. And while Witherspoon gamely rises to the multiple physical, emotional and spiritual challenges placed before her, it’s Wild’s unique approach to editing – a crucial below-the-line aspect that makes all the difference here – that elevates Valle’s compelling drama and ensures that the focus stays on Strayed’s life journey, not just on her walk.
After a terrific opening scene capturing Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) at a low point – though not her lowest, because there are several “bottoms” coming in Wild -- Valle pushes Witherspoon down her most daunting roads to capture the high-wire life the author led. I don’t want to reveal some of the left turns encountered by Strayed, either on the trail or off of it. The experience of Wild lies in struggling through each obstacle alongside Strayed, never questioning “if” she’ll persevere but certainly wondering “how” she’ll continue with the trip that now defines her existence. And it’s actually thrilling to watch the normally pert and camera-ready Witherspoon absorb every punch, land a few of her own jabs, and absolutely go the distance. We see, on screen, the chin-first fighter who shared the screen with Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash, rarely relenting and holding her own. This is an Oscar winner firing on all cylinders, which is enthralling to watch.
“I don’t know when I became such a piece of shit,” Strayed reflects during a trying time, emphasizing that Wild is about a damaged woman reclaiming a life that, so far, she has wasted. Witherspoon hasn’t “wasted” her career by any stretch, though it has been years since she has hoisted a meaty role on her dainty frame – the way Cheryl shoulders her massive hiking backpack – and effortlessly controls each and every facet of a compelling character.
Not that Wild is entirely Witherspoon’s show. Artful editing on the part of Valle and Martin Pensa finds creative ways to move up and down Cheryl’s difficult timeline. Wild transitions expertly between the tumultuous events of Cheryl’s past, explaining why she’s pushing (or punishing) herself in the present. It’s in those flashbacks where Laura Dern is able to shine incredibly bright as Strayed’s complicated mother. Even when she isn’t on screen, the shadow she casts over Cheryl’s life (for reasons explained in the film) proves haunting.
Ultimately, though, Wild is an emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual tour de force for leading actress Reese Witherspoon, and her spectacular turn should have her at the front of the current Oscar race in her particular field.