Oscar Special: Wild shows off Reese Witherspoon's acting skills, but it's pretty tame

Deepanjana Pal

February 19, 2015 11:05:49 IST

From the high drama of Dallas Buyers' Club to the story of a young woman trekking more than 1,000 miles on her own is quite a transition for Jean-Marc Vallée. What does connect both his films is the undercurrent of grief and determination that characterises Vallée's protagonists. In Wild, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a writer who decided that the only way to sort out her inner demons and miseries was to hike along the formidable Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada and covers nine mountain ranges. The film is based on Strayed's memoir, also titled Wild. The book is a wonderful, gripping read that works as well as it does because the reader hears every written word in Strayed's voice. She's sardonic, witty, alert and sensitive to both the people and nature around her, as well as to the changes her body is undergoing.

Courtesy: Facebook

Courtesy: Facebook

The film isn't entirely faithful to the book. It loses some of the characters that Strayed met on the trail, making the on screen Cheryl more of a solitary person than the Cheryl in the book. Strayed's stepfather is erased from the narrative, possibly to focus attention upon Cheryl's close relationship with her mother, which lies at the heart of Wild. Nick Hornby and Strayed's script doesn't lose sight of how Cheryl isn't able to deal with her grief at losing her mother unexpectedly to cancer. Bobbi, Cheryl's mother, was only 45 and had been given a year to live, but died seven weeks after being diagnosed. This tragedy ravaged Cheryl, in both reel and real lives. She doesn't know exactly why she thinks, four years after her mother's death, hiking more than 1,000 miles will heal her, but she heads out anyway.

As she walks along the Pacific Crest Trail in the film, Cheryl (Witherspoon, sans make-up) has flashbacks. She remembers dancing with her mother in the kitchen as a girl, shooting up heroin after her mother's death, getting a matching tattoo with her ex-husband to commemorate their divorce and other snippets. These memories don't appear in chronological order, so it's left to the viewer to piece together the order in which Cheryl strayed from the straight and narrow. Incidentally, Cheryl's surname is one she chose for herself after her divorce because she felt the word reflected what she'd done to herself and with her life.

Witherspoon's performance is spontaneous, unmannered and it's good to see her using her acting talents, particularly since she's emblazoned in most of our memories as the heroine of the Legally Blonde series. As Cheryl, Witherspoon's performance doesn't ever seem like an act, which is the highest praise one can offer to a 38 year old actress playing a 26 year old woman. Witherspoon also plays a younger Cheryl and even when she's in the scenes with Laura Dern as her mother, the lack of a convincing age-gap between the two actresses doesn't stand out.

Dern appears sporadically in Wild, but unlike Witherspoon, her portrayal of Strayed's mother Bobbi isn't quite as natural. From the styled ringlets in her hair to her beaming grin and her good cheer, everything about Dern's Bobbi seems just a little forced. The Bobbi in Wild the book is far more enchanting and inspiring.

Wild is held together by Witherspoon's acting and shots of the natural scenery that's so unforgiving, unfamiliar and yet beautiful. However, it turns out there's only so much drama in seeing a woman trudge through different landscapes and eat mush. There's no tension or suspense in Wild. There are no predatory animals to worry about, there are well-positioned campsites and friendly fellow hikers (as well as a staggering number of attractive male hikers). Only once does Cheryl seem to be in danger, and that moment too is fleeting. By the time, she's about halfway into the trail, you might find yourself wishing you could fast forward to the end because nothing seems to be happening.

This film Wild sorely misses Strayed's voice, which is what kept the book so engaging. Occasionally, we're allowed to hear via a voiceover what Cheryl is thinking, but it's not enough to let you inside her head. From the outside, what Cheryl is doing may be an impressive feat of physical stamina, but it doesn't look dramatic.

Considering how much fun Strayed's memoir is, the monotony of Vallée's film adaptation should make you want to scream like Witherspoon does when we first meet her. However, even that feels like too much effort. There's nothing wrong with Wild. It's just not moving enough and you don't sense enough of Cheryl's wildness. Instead, Wild just ends up feeling, well, tame.

Updated Date: Feb 19, 2015 11:05 AM