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Wild

Year: 2014
Production Co: Pacific Standard
Studio: Fox Searchlight
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Producer: Reese Witherspoon
Writer: Nick Hornby/Cheryl Strayed
Cast: Reese Witherwpoon, Laura Dern, Gabby Hoffman, Cliff De Young

Reese Witherspoon follows in the footsteps of many a former strictly commercial actress in this small budget, prestige film about misery and hardship complete with drug abuse, nudity and obscenities screamed into forested canyons in the middle of nowhere. That's right, Wild gives her a role the likes of which you've never seen from her.

And the results are as spectacular as the film is beautiful. Witherspoon's familiar visage is transformed as the tortured Cheryl Strayed, on whose real-life memoir the film is based.

Those big blue eyes we've seen shining from a million rom-com posters change into something far different, veering between deep, soulful wells of sorrow and deer-caught-in-headlights horror at what she's done. And that smile that usually lights up her whole face is mostly absent, pinched instead behind anger or a sense of the profound emotional and geographical landscape rolling out ahead of her.

Witherspoon can hardly escape her own body or perky voice, but Cheryl is a woman searching for meaning, her face haunted, her voice quiet and restrained when she's not occasionally screaming in fury.

After losing her beloved mother (Laura Dern in an irrepressible role) and descending into a destructive circle of unprotected casual sex, Cheryl finds she's faced with two choices. The first is forced on her when her husband asks for a divorce.

The second appears to come out of nowhere when she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from the deserts of California to the forests of Oregon, a trip of around 1,000 miles.

With little preparation or experience (watching her struggle to put on the backpack as she's first setting out from a remote motel room is almost comedy), Cheryl sets off. As she walks from boiling deserts to snowy mountains and every other conceivable landscape she's both haunted and comforted by dreams of her mother, former husband, dark past and more.

It's not clear what she'll find at the end of the trail – along the way of which she makes several casual friends and has a few nasty, fearful moments – and the resolution isn't as clear as you might have expected.

In the end the point might simply be that Cheryl sets out to do something in her life and does it. The analogy of just putting one foot in front of the other is universally applicable to almost any kind of task or ambition any of us have in life.

But as good as Witherspoon is, the real stars are director Jean-Marc Vallée and the script by Nick Hornby (based on Strayed's book). Backstory and exposition is built very seamlessly (so much so as to appear haphazardly placed) into the main action, and the dreamlike transitions between what Cheryl's doing and what she's dreaming or thinking about make the whole film feel like a fleeting memory – no doubt like most of her thoughts were.

The incredible scenery you get a glimpse of in the trailer is almost a given, but there's so much richness in the performance, script and editing it's not even the most impressive aspect of the movie.

As a fairly literal rendition of Joseph Campbell's hero's journey archetype, the theme of neither Witherspoon's passion project (which she produced) or the book it's based on are terribly new, but the simplicity of both Cheryl's journey and yours alongside her gives Vallée's lyric vision full flight.

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