It seems ironic to me that "inspirational" movies are the ones that so often fill me with pessimism; the films where some common man overcomes a generic tragedy, often through some type of spiritual awakening or divine intervention, are the most disgustingly artificial releases from Hollywood. They try to tell you otherwise with their "based on a true story" label that is, nine times out of ten, based on such total doctoring of the truth that one can't help but feel apathy toward any individual involved in the creation of the meaningless melodrama of the situation.
With Jean-Marc Valée's latest picture, starring Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, Mud) as a woman overcoming a troubled past through a three-month hike across the Pacific coast of the United States, brandishes the label with pride, and yet, through some miracle fitting of any other cliché-ridden story of its kind, avoids the traps that so often lead to failure. With Wild, Valée works the same magic that allowed last year's excellent Dallas Buyers Club to be the film that it was.
It is impossible to talk about a movie like this one without first examining the lead performance. Witherspoon's is the only role in Wild to hold any permanent presence, and, as such, needs to hold a level of weight that can captivate an audience for a two-hour runtime, and, though she is positively incredible and human for much of the film, it seems apparent to me that it is for the best that this is a mostly one-woman show, as the interactions between characters are where this film ultimately fails.
Aside from often feeling like artificial expansion of the runtime that tend to cripple the pacing, they tend to break the flow of the otherwise mesmerizing performance of a woman struggling in a deeply primal sense that could have otherwise been a deeply moving meditation on redemption that the soundtrack, composed of gentle folk songs from artists such as Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and Grateful Dead, so perfectly complements. Witherspoon ultimately just feels artificial in conversations, something that horribly hides the beauty possible in this story.
So, if the performance from Reese Witherspoon falls short, what is it that makes this movie work to the degree that it does? I think it may be its maturity--consider that this is a film about a woman who spent her life addicted to sex and drugs only to shed the chains of sin in a symbolic hike. Then, consider that this film never comes off as a morally black-or-white anti-drug/sex film. It takes an insane level of talent for any writer to walk the line between subtle character-study and heavy-handed morality play, but screenwriter Nick Hornby manages to glide across this tightrope flawless with help from director Jean-Marc Valée's shot composition that lingers on only the things that deserve to linger, the points that mark Cheryl Strayed, the protagonist of the film, in her evolution rather than her origin. This brings a story that begs to be told on the Hallmark channel to a level of subtlety that transcends any kind of failure for something legitimately beautiful.
Though not reaching the level of poignancy of travel-stories such as those of Jack Kerouac, Wild is certainly a fascinating work that will be a hot topic in the upcoming Academy Awards. It flows with poignancy at its best moments, and, even if it falters often, it regains its balance quickly and nimbly in a game of cinematic acrobatics that is difficult to match. This film truly brings us into the life of a character, a human being, something that is representative of a true level of quality in the work of director Jean-Marc Valée. "When a movie character is really working, we become that character. That's what the movies offer: Escapism into lives other than our own." --Roger Ebert, and Alex Majors.