Can you picture the perfectly perky Reese Witherspoon hiking through 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to search for herself? She couldn't either -- at first.
"I had never seen myself in a movie like that before," said Witherspoon, at the Wild press conference in Toronto.
But, Witherspoon's role in Wild is one every actress would salivate over, and is her best performance in nearly a decade. Guided by Canadian golden boy Jean-Marc Vallee, who directed both Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey to Oscar glory for 2013's Dallas Buyers Club, she fully immerses herself in the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir.
Plagued by guilt and disappointment after her mother Bobbi's (Laura Dern) sudden death from cancer, Witherspoon's Cheryl turns to sex and heroin, a path which eventually leads to divorce from her long-suffering husband, Paul (The Newsroom's Thomas Sadoski).
Witherspoon, too, lost her way after a series of critical and commercial cinematic disappointments, and a quickly-forgotten public intoxication scandal. Yes, we still know her name. Personal and professional issues aside, she's a perfect fit for Cheryl. After all, Cheryl's not supposed to be much of a hiker, and this journey is meant to come from out of left field. In the first scene of the film, she has to rip off part of her bloody big toe nail, only because her hiking boots were at least a size too small. She buys everything a hiker could need for a trip of any length, stuffs it all into a backpack (with the prices still on), deems herself ready, and ends up with a 65-pound behemoth of a bag. Though based on Strayed's own account, Witherspoon and Vallee admittedly added even more weight to make Cheryl look as ill-equipped as possible.
Cheryl comically fights to put the straps on, to start her trek, in spite of its obvious difficulty. After a montage of stopping and starting, she's finally on her way, repeating her friend's mantra that she can quit anytime. Along the way, she's haunted by memories of her mother and her marriage, and struggles to find her sense of direction in more ways than one. Even when she meets other hikers on the trail, Cheryl's always on the defensive, leery of possible predators, despite the fact that only a few pose a threat. It's a much less extreme version of 127 Hours, where Cheryl's plans frequently go awry, and last for 94 days.
But all of Cheryl's back story is told in non-linear flashback, much to the detriment of the film. Out-of-sequence fights with her husband, rampant drug use and connections to her mother distort both the movie's timeline, and Cheryl's motive, though they're supposed to explain it. Still, with these narrative shortcomings, Dern shines as the effervescent, and scene-stealing Bobbi, a single mom looking to reboot her own life through her children's success and happiness. She's a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actress nod, at least.
But you can't knock Cheryl, or Witherspoon's conviction. While on her quest, it's Cheryl who confidently displays no signs of vanity. With an exhausted bare face, and extra bruises (some of them real), Vallee admitted he boarded up mirrors in the makeup room to ensure Witherspoon couldn't see how "bad" she looked. Not only did Witherspoon "ugly up," she also has at least three topless scenes, all of which gave the film added authenticity. The gorgeous, lush Instagram-friendly scenic shots and use of natural light in Oregon further punctuate Cheryl's mission.
So it’s another triumph for Vallee. Though Wild may not have enough gas in its tank to earn Witherspoon her second Oscar statue, but it certainly relit her creative fire.