During an early flashback in Jean-Marc Vallée’s Wild, an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s beloved 2012 memoir centered around her hike along the formidable Pacific Crest Trail in 1994, Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) late mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), asks her daughter about “zipless fucks,” a term coined from Fear of Flying. In Erica Jong’s seminal novel, it refers to a unique and rare sexual encounter, one that has no hang-ups and no meaning beyond the act itself, and there’s a sense that Vallée seeks a similar purity in his no-frills shooting style, the same sort that denoted his prior Dallas Buyers Club. And as with that film, the director carries out the beats of Nick Hornby’s script with total efficiency, but offers little in the way of inventive visual expression of what drew him to the intermittently poignant drama that makes up Wild.
Thankfully, Hornby has provided Vallée with a far more endearing screenplay than Melisa Wallack and Craig Borten’s hugely compromised script for the Oscar-anointed Dallas Buyers Club. Wild toggles between past and present, charting both Strayed’s journey across the PCT and the tribulations of her life leading up to the hike, including Bobbi’s death, her divorce from Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and a serious heroin addiction. As one might expect from the author behind High Fidelity, many of these memories are tied to music and literature, from a drugged-out hold-up soundtracked by “More, More, More” to the Emily Dickinson quote that Strayed signs off with when she starts her journey. The symbol of the wild fox that follows Strayed along her hike is too obvious, as is the diseased horse that Bobbi bequeaths her, but Hornby expertly taps into the connection between art and personal history, how songs and books unique to Strayed’s character equally bring about eruptions of her past traumas and joys.
Witherspoon has never really taken on such a stripped-down, emotionally barbed character as Strayed. She’s an endearing and occasionally brilliant comic presence on film, but only her brief turn in Jeff Nichols’s Mud hinted at such dramatic ambitions. There are moments in Wild, such as its opening sequence, during which the actress bracingly conveys Strayed’s fury, and others where she deftly articulates how the woman seems lost in endless hurt. Witherspoon seesaws between the bitterness that grips Strayed and the hope that she slowly begins to embrace without ever overplaying her hand. In a wondrously vivid scene, panic and uncertainty fill the character’s eyes in reaction to the possible intentions of a mildly misogynistic farmer, only to then light up with warmth and good humor when it becomes clear that what he truly relishes is the red-rope licorice hidden somewhere in his truck.
If only Vallée were able to craft shots and visual rhythms to match both Hornby and Witherspoon’s thoughtful perspectives on the material. Here, he addresses womanhood, memory, and feminism with the same face-value flippancy as his takes on AIDS, drugs, and sexuality in Dallas Buyers Club, where he was similarly outmatched by the passion of his performers, even in the supporting turns. Strayed encounters more than a few fellow hikers on her journey, played by Michiel Huisman, Kevin Rankin, and Mo McRae, among others, the lion’s share of whom are, as one might infer, men. Some are sexist and some are alarmingly aggressive, but most are good-natured, helpful, and utterly forgettable, including Paul. It’s not hard to see Vallée as similarly present and yet indistinguishable in Wild, a mild artistic personality helming an intensely personal story from an entirely distinct individual, creating a film that never quite matches the blunt audacity of its simple title.