“Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée has only made half a dozen films, but they demonstrate extraordinary range,” begins Stephen Farber in the Hollywood Reporter. “He went from a coming-of-age story called C.R.A.Z.Y to a lush historical epic, The Young Victoria. Last year’s Oscar-winning film, Dallas Buyers Club, explored a little-known part of the history of the AIDS epidemic. Now in Wild, based on a best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Vallée has crafted a vivid wilderness adventure film that is also a powerful story of family anguish and survival.”
“Traumatized by her mother’s death, Strayed turned to drugs and promiscuous sex, destroyed her marriage, and fled to nature in search of catharsis,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “It comes as no surprise that the movie version, starring Reese Witherspoon and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a script by British novelist Nick Hornby, hits plenty of poignant notes. But despite the powerful elements of Strayed’s real-life experiences, Wild goes out of its way to overstate the built-in sentimentalism.”
“Incidentally, Vallee and Hornby’s insistence on presenting their protagonist as a fully formed sexual being is one of the film’s most refreshing qualities, and the truest mark of its fidelity to its ardent and lusty source material,” writes Variety‘s Justin Chang. “As an attractive woman in her 20s traveling alone, Cheryl is acutely aware that every strange man she encounters is a potential predator—whether it’s the kind farm worker (W. Earl Brown) who offers her a hot meal and shower, or the fellow traveler who turns out to be a very real threat. But Cheryl is neither a passive victim nor a saint, and in a film of quietly understated moments that often prove more impressive than the whole, few are as telling as the one where she casually spies on a male hiker (Kevin Rankin) emerging nude from a dip in the river—a rare example of the female gaze at work in American movies.”
“Stylistically, Wild is deeply marred by its incessant dependence on would-be powerful and often manipulative flashbacks,” writes Rodrigo Perez at the Playlist. “Oh, and the flashbacks! There’s the introspective flashback. There’s the jarring and chaotic flashback. The somber, reflective flashback and all sorts of variations that just bludgeon the viewer for an arduous overlong two hours. And then of course, there’s the fragmented flashback, wisps of memory that flicker into the movie erratically attempting to confer just how much pain, baggage and suffering Strayed has endured. There are even flashbacks within flashbacks…. Wild is inelegantly told and ceaselessly repeats itself ad nauseum.”
But for Anne Thompson, “it feels genuine, and heartfelt, and true.” Gregory Ellwood at HitFix: “Witherspoon is so good many will argue this is the best performance of her career…. Wild is also assisted by fine supporting work from Laura Dern, as Witherspoon’s mother, who is integral to Vallée’s flashback structure. Thomas Sadoski (The Newsroom) also deserves kudos for making Strayed’s ex-husband Paul an intriguing character in his own right with very little screen time. Director of photography Yves Bélanger, who previously collaborated with Vallée on Dallas, brings a wondrous scope to Strayed’s journey and makes sure Witherspoon looks as rough as the story requires.”
Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan talks with Witherspoon, who tells him: “By far, this is the hardest movie I’ve ever made in my life.”
For the New York Times, Michael Cieply talks with Valée and Hornby who says, “I suspect one of the reasons the book has done so enormously well is not because everyone is a secret hiker at heart, but because Cheryl is so recognizable to the kind of people who read books. Certainly, I felt I knew who she was.”
Update: Earlier this month, David Davidson began delving into Strayed’s story and argues that it’s “a perfect match for Vallée: a personal fresco that can be cinematically rendered, the creation of an alternative community, and a humanizing outreach towards others.”
Update, 9/1: “Atom Egoyan circa 1994 might have been able to do something worthwhile with the material, what with its incremental reveal of past traumas that continually reframe the murkiness of the present,” suggests Michael Nordine at the House Next Door. “Vallée’s take on it goes in circles and feels as meandering as Cheryl’s walk through the elements. Wild only arrives anywhere in the most literal sense, and its many detours, while scenic, serve as little more than temporary diversions on a road to nowhere.”
Update, 9/2: “Witherspoon makes for a perfect Cheryl,” writes James Rocchi at Film.com, “and the story gives her a chance to shine like few films have. Prickly, self-destructive, kind and hurtful, Cheryl’s a sharp-edged piece of work, and the story’s journey is not about blunting them, but, rather, finding better things to cut and slash. It’s a rich role, and it speaks well to the work done by Hornby in adapting Strayed’s distinctive voice.”
Updates, 9/5: “The movie is never boring,” grants Jim Hemphill at Filmmaker, “but it also never adds up to much because the filmmakers seem to see its basis in fact as an excuse to be sloppy with their storytelling.”
Etan Vlessing interviews Valée for the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 9/7: Anne Thompson‘s spoken with Vallée in Telluride, noting that he’s “already prepping a September 15 start for his next, Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as an investment banker who loses his wife in a car crash and tries to rediscover his emotional mojo. Naomi Watts costars.”
Update, 9/9: Wild, “which was pushed through development by Witherspoon, feels at times like a journey taken by a Kelly Reichardt character, not the passion project of an mainstream star,” finds Henry Barnes in the Guardian. “There are a couple of stones in the shoe. Laura Dern… isn’t given much scope to develop her part before her character dies. Gaby Hoffmann, again playing the responsible friend dragging a mate back from the brink, is under-used. Still, the film—like the story—is very much a solo journey.”
Updates, 9/12: Writing for Cinema Scope, Vallée champion David Davidson sees the director moving “into more optimistic territory.”
“Witherspoon is winning, in a role that requires her to be prickly in the flashback sequences and a plucky feminist heroine on the trail, and while the film is engineered for maximum uplift, it’s an undeniably effective machine,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “My major gripe about Wild—aside from a script that awkwardly explains pieces of Strayed’s personal past that most viewers could pick up from images and context alone—is that the ‘stroll down memory lane’ structure is far too common for movies like this.”
Dallas Buyers Club “was a braver film,” writes the Telegraph‘s Tim Robey, “but it’s the spaciousness of this one that distinguishes it from being just another mechanically pre-ordained adversity narrative. Retracing Cheryl’s path from the Mojave desert to Northern California’s ski slopes to the misty forests of Oregon, it’s an entrancingly lush visual experience, but one which also captures something of the loneliness, the fatigue, and the bleary, squinting alienation that travel can inflict.”
“I had a hard time buying Witherspoon as a heroin addict no matter how greasy her hair or how dead her eyes,” writes Susan Wloszczyna at RogerEbert.com. “I left the theater underwhelmed.”
Update, 11/2: Cara Buckley profiles Witherspoon for the New York Times.
Updates, 12/9: A.O. Scott in the NYT: “In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, Wild reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs.”
In the Notebook, David Davidson argues that it’s the “personal impetus to create, explore and engage with life and the world that is at the root of Vallée’s cinema. Everything else is a distraction.”
More from Eliza Berman (Time), Chris Cabin (Slant, 2.5/4), Mike D’Angelo (AV Club, B), David Edelstein (New York), Marilyn Ferdinand, Andrew O’Hehir (Salon), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5), David Sims (Atlantic), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (Dissolve, 3.5/5), Kelly Vance (East Bay Express), Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed), Susan Wloszczyna (RogerEbert.com, 3/4) and Stephanie Zacharek (Voice). And Nigel M. Smith interviews Witherspoon for Indiewire.