Kubler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief” aside, the conventional wisdom goes that everyone grieves differently, the devil being in the details. For Cheryl Strayed, author of the Oprah-approved memoir Wild, those details included binging on sex and heroin before hitting bottom and committing to a soul-cleansing 1100-mile, 94-day solo hike.
Now Wild has gotten the Hollywood treatment, with Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, Laura Dern as her mother Bobbi, Nick Hornby (About a Boy) penning the script, and Jean-Marc Vallée behind the camera. Given that Vallée guided his Dallas Buyers Club actors to Oscars last awards season, one might well look cynically upon Wild, and its lead and supporting females, as entirely apparent Oscar bait.
That’s certainly true, but Wild improves on Dallas Buyers Club with Hornby’s literate, thoughtfully constructed narrative, one that hews more closely to the true story on which it is based. Add rather brilliant editing by Martin Pensa and Vallée (under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy) and expert work by Witherspoon and Dern, and you get a satisfying excursion, a secular but spiritual journey of self-discovery.
Strayed’s long walk up the scenic Pacific Crest Trail (which runs from the Mexican border up to Canada) force her into dialogue with herself, though like Alvin Straight in 1999’s Oscar-nominated The Straight Story, she gleans lessons from other folks she meets along the way (call this “The Strayed Story”). Strayed needs to get her head straight after poorly navigating familial troubled waters, one a health crisis affecting her 45-year-old mother and the other the dissolution of her seven-year marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), a sympathetic victim of Strayed’s sexual straying and disappearances to drug dens.
That Strayed comes across as an anti-heroine, a character not easy to love but rather pathetic, puts the story on solid ground for its many miles to go before redemption. Hornby and Vallée employ voiceover in the form of internal monologue, musical earworms (most notably Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa (If I Could)”), and frequent flashbacks that qualify Wild as a cinematic version of what Tennessee Williams called a “memory play.” Effectively, Vallée tells Strayed’s story in a series of reveries, each surfacing to consciousness in a head cleared by lonesome travel.
The result is a reasonably rich character study deftly anchored by Witherspoon, who allows Cheryl to be naïve and fragile in matters practical (her overstuffed pack, a symbolic Atlas-esque burden, earns the nickname “Monster”) and emotional (“When I’m done…I’ll have to start living. And I’m nowhere near ready”) but brave enough to, at long last, force her way into self-knowledge.
Wild isn’t perfect: though a more palatable version of Eat Pray Love (one that's still uncomfortably privileged in its heroine’s ability to take three months off to find herself), Strayed’s story can still feel pat, its wisdom at times resembling that of a fortune cookie (“I’m gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was. I’m going to put myself in the way of beauty”). Two glaring examples of product placement rankle, and opinions will vary on whether Strayed’s ultimate epiphany is moving or eye-rolling.
Still, Wild, in its essence, proffers a useful message that it’s wise to clear the clutter every once in a while—and especially at times of painful transition—to take stock. The sub-theme that artful culture can play a role in self-understanding (Strayed and Hornby name-check everyone from Emily Dickinson to Stevie Ray Vaughn along the road) serves as a stealth endorsement of the film that contains it.
20th Century Fox gives Wild a very civilized treatment in its Blu-ray + Digital HD release. The digital-to-digital transfer fares well in 1080p, delivering an accurate and lovely rendition of Yves Bélange's impressive cinematography. Color is well-calibrated and often quite rich in hue, while the well-defined detail provided by the source remains invariably crystal-clear on disc. As always with digital, the brightly-lit exterior scenes are the most breathtaking and sharp, while notably shadowy interiors (a relative rarity here) offer the least amount of visual detail. Sound comes in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that provides considerable heft and body to the prominent source music while never being less than clear in dialogue, thanks to a fine all-around sound mix.
Bonus features kick off with an audio commentary by director Jean-Marc Vallée, producer Bruna Papandrea and production executive David Greenbaum. While Vallée is the real show here, all three provide considerable information about what it took to take Wild from book to screen, partly by speaking about and on behalf of fellow producer Witherspoon (pity she couldn't join them).
"The Real Cheryl Strayed" (8:37, HD), as promised, helps us get to know Strayed a little, as well as her Oregon and Portland stomping grounds. Similarly, "The Real Location Is The Best Location" (8:45, HD) details shooting sites. "How Much Does A Monster Weigh?" (3:46, HD) gets inside the infamous backpack featured in the film.
The Pacific Crest Trail Interactive Map (HD) is a pretty nifty interactive feature/menu that allows viewers to track on the map Cheryl's journey and click through to the appropriate scenes in the film.
"Deleted Scenes" (7:49, HD) come with optional commentary by Vallée.
Next up is a series of Fox promotional featurettes: "Bringing the Book Into The Wild" (3:35, HD), "Reese Witherspoon in the Wild" (3:55, HD), "Wild: 94 Days, 1100 miles" (3:18, HD), "Directing Wild" (3:56, HD), "Making Wild" (5:21, HD), "Pacific Crest Trail" (4:03, HD) and "Real Locations" (3:21, HD).
Last up the self-explanatory "Experiencing the PCT: A Special Message From Cheryl Strayed" (1:47, HD), the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, HD), and a Gallery (2:03, HD) with auto-play and manual-play options. The disc also comes with the 16-page pamphlet "Life After Wild," about Strayed today.
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