Hollywood tends not to deal much in surprises: Whether it’s sequels, remakes and retreads of familiar properties or actors and directors staying very securely inside their comfort zones, it’s rare for a movie to sneak up on audiences and offer something unexpected.
That excitement of discovery is just part of what makes “Wild” such an exhilarating screen experience. Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed — who coped with her divorce, the death of her mother, and her self-destructive behavior by setting out on a grueling, three-month trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada — the movie never dips into the easy answers and personal growth waters of “Eat Pray Love” (with a little “127 Hours” and “Into the Wild” thrown in for some grit) that you might expect.
For director Jean-Marc Vallée, the film’s smarts and soulfulness give him a leap upward from “Dallas Buyers Club” that puts him head-to-head with Tate Taylor (“Get On Up”) as 2014’s Most Improved Filmmaker. The other big surprise of “Wild” turns out to be Reese Witherspoon, going far from her usual comfort zone here.
It’s no slight to say that not all great actors can do everything — Cary Grant couldn’t sing, and Marilyn Monroe didn’t play any district attorneys — and in Witherspoon’s case, we’re used to seeing her play strong, forthright, no-nonsense characters. For much of her career, as great as some of her performances have been, “vulnerable” and “f–ked up” weren’t high on the list of her skills.
She was convincing as both of those things in her recent supporting role in “Mud,” and in “Wild” Witherspoon ups the ante. You already know she can play a person who endures enormous physical and mental challenges on the path to her own spiritual healing, but you’ll be surprised at how believable she is as an intelligent, messy woman who turns to heroin and promiscuity in an effort to dull the pain in her life.
We meet Witherspoon’s Cheryl at the very beginning of her gargantuan hike; it’s the sort of journey taken only by hikers with experience, but as we see all of Cheryl’s camping accessories coming fresh out of their packaging, it’s immediately clear that she’s plunging head-first into this huge undertaking with no prep whatsoever. Barely able to support her comically oversized backpack — along the way, she will shed both literal and metaphorical baggage — Cheryl struggles through the first few days on her path, allowing her plenty of time for flashbacks.
Her mother (Laura Dern, in a moving turn) was a source of strength, and even in snippets of remembered moments we can see why her loss would be so devastating to Cheryl. Less attention is given to her failed marriage to Paul (Thomas Sadoski, “The Newsroom”), but it’s clear that she was in no place emotionally to handle guiding her own life, much less sharing it with someone else.
Screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”) — a master in his own novels about unfocused people getting their acts together — gets the notes just right, from the way that pop songs implant themselves into your head when you’re on a long walk to the mix of personalities that Cheryl meets along her way. “Wild” accurately captures the feeling of being a young woman on her own in potentially dangerous situations, with each new male stranger she comes upon being treated as a potential rapist until proven otherwise.
At the same time, the elements of tragedy and self-help are leavened with witty moments that pop up unannounced throughout, like an encounter with a reporter (Mo McRae) for “The Hobo Times” — Cheryl keeps insisting that she’s not a hobo, but her answers to his questions regarding employment and a permanent address suggest otherwise. (If nothing else, the scene proves that the word “hobo” becomes hilarious if repeated enough times.)
The deserts and mountains along which Cheryl hikes provide gorgeous vistas, and while cinematographer Yves Bélanger (“Laurence Anyways”) takes advantage of their postcard perfection, he’s no less attuned to the way the light lands in Cheryl’s childhood kitchen or in the dingy motel room where she shoots up.
In less sensitive hands, “Wild” could have easily wound up being an Oprah’s Book Club episode writ large, but Hornby, Vallée, Witherspoon and Dern lead the charge in taking the material to a higher elevation.