Reese Witherspoon heads onto the trail in "Wild."

Fox Searchlight
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes
For a movie about someone making a solo hike across some 1,100 miles, “Wild” is awfully busy. High stakes set pieces where Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl Strayed runs out of water or fumbles badly while erecting a tent are few and far between. Instead flashbacks are everywhere, memories lurking around every tree or stretch of arid desert. When the narration track isn’t filled with her grumbling, Strayed is grumbling out loud to herself. It might seem shocking that Nick Hornby has written a walking movie — culled from Strayed’s own memoir — but the idea makes perfect sense within minutes.
None of this is a complaint, mind you. It’s a film where the past really is as important as the present, and not just because high drama is more interesting than someone walking. The reasons for Strayed’s mega-jaunt are doled out gradually. She’s effectively working her way through a tower of pain: the passing, via cancer, of her beloved sparkplug of a mother (Laura Dern); a failed marriage; a streak of self-destruction in which she wallowed in drugs and dirty sex. Like Mark Wahlberg in the forthcoming “The Gambler,” Strayed is trying to strip herself down to nothing — to shed the excesses and mistakes of the past so that she may soldier on anew.
This sounds Hallmarky, but, as played by Witherspoon and sprightfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, “Wild” comes off tough, rough and funny. When she started out, Witherspoon was a thrilling, fresh face in movies — a live wire whose every move, huge and minute, was electric. She tried the glamorous Hollywood thing, but her gifts were meant for small and personable films like this, especially ones that tapped into the actress’ innate short fuse. Strayed may have noble, life-reaffirming intentions, but she’s a total grump, one who greets every obstacle, major and minor, with profound irritation. She hasn’t planned her hike too well, and she constantly finds herself reluctantly and grouchily turning to the kindness of strangers.
Some of these turn out to be men, some who may have less than noble intentions. Most turn out fine, yet every encounter has an air of danger — partly because she would really rather make like Greta Garbo and go it alone, partly because she’s a young woman in a great open expanse all by herself, with nowhere to run should things turn iffy or worse.
There isn’t too much time spent with her alone; this isn’t this year’s “Tracks,” the muddled travelogue made of a similar story. And it’s not like Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” or chunks of Bela Tarr films, where time evaporates as characters trudge over endless landscapes towards nothing much at all. It’s a character study of a strong
character — or, as it happens, characters. Dern, as Strayed’s mom, is as rich and thrilling a personage as Strayed — an abused wife who transformed, as her daughter wishes to, into a different person. Always smiling, effervescent and endearingly fumbling, Dern is the kind of supporting character one half-wishes were the lead, whose absence is always felt. That’s not to say Strayed isn’t a thrilling protagonist, just that the film knows exactly what it’s doing.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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