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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Wild movie review (London Film Festival)

Wild green light

A film full of spectacular landscapes of both the natural world and the human spirit. This is what it looks like when women get to be people onscreen.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for stories about women

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Cheryl Strayed was a mess. She was in the midst of divorcing her husband; she’d ruined their marriage with her constant random fucking of strangers. She was using heroin. She was lost. So, in the summer of 1995, she figured maybe she might be able to find herself by hiking a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. Which she did. And then she wrote a book about her transformative experience. And now it’s a movie.

Please, everyone stop with the “Oh, this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon looks like hell” and the “Hey, Witherspoon is finally doing a sex scene.” You are part of the problem. Because this is the movie where Reese Witherspoon gets to stop being a pretty doll moved around like a pawn in support of a man’s story (except for Legally Blonde; that’s an awesome woman’s story) and gets to be as hugely, honkingly, humanly screwed up and complex and fascinating and dealing with her own shit as men get to be on film. This requires not giving a damn about vanity. This is what it looks like when women get to be people onscreen. There’s nothing shocking about… except how infrequently it happens.

Wild is an unabashedly feminist film. I mean, Nick Hornby’s (A Long Way Down, An Education) script actually uses the F word, actually has this word coming out of the mouths of women, who aren’t even ashamed of it. Witherspoon’s (Devil’s Knot, This Means War) Cheryl has a conversation with her mother (the always wonderful Laura Dern: The Fault in Our Stars, Little Fockers), who laments how she never had her own life, just went from being a daughter to a wife to a mother, always defined by what she was supposed to be doing for other people. Wonder of wonders, this is a movie in which women talk about how necessary it is for women to have their own lives. And this is a movie that shows what it means for women to have their own lives, to just be for themselves and for no one else. Not forever (though that would be okay, too) but just for a while.

It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly when we — the big We, our culture at large — has no template for this. Certainly no template for the adventure that Cheryl sets out on. Women don’t do adventure, and so right on Day 1, as she is setting out on a desert trail with a pack as big as she is, Cheryl wonders, “What the fuck have I done?” And then she tells herself, “You can quit any time.” But she can’t, of course. Because the whole point of her adventure is to push herself, to challenge herself. People she meets on the trail are surprised to see a woman hiking alone: this is Not Done. But she’s doing it. And I would love for Wild to be seen by little girls and young women as an example of why women, too, and not just men, should see that things that are demanding can also be inspiring and rewarding. There are hard things that are worth doing, and girls don’t hear this often enough. Or ever. Which makes Cheryl an even more interesting person: she had extra roadblocks to overcome that a man wouldn’t have. Men do stuff like this because it’s dangerous and risky; it’s part (or all) of the appeal. But women aren’t supposed to do stuff like this for the same reasons. Wait, what?

Kudos to director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and Hornby for nailing one aspect of a woman’s perspective that I have never seen onscreen before. (Kudos to Witherspoon, too, but I suspect she already knows this and it wasn’t much of a stretch for her.) It’s the wariness with which women always — always — have to deal with strange men. Cheryl meets a lot of men on her months’ long trek, because it’s almost all men doing the same hike. And Wild rightfully readily and even cheerily acknowledges a thing that most women know: Most men aren’t dangerous, not even the ones who turn out to be creeps and jerks. But we never know which one is going to be the exception. And Vallée creates enormous suspense at every single instance when Cheryl faces an encounter with a male stranger: Is this going to be the moment of her rape and murder? (She survived to write the book, so it’s no spoiler to reveal that she does not, in fact, get hacked to pieces on the trail.) This reality of women’s lives is the source of one of the funniest and shrewdest lines of dialogue in the movie… and I would hope that boys and young men might gain a new appreciation from this for what it is like to be a woman in our world.

There are universal aspects to Cheryl’s story, too, of course. (Because, as previously mentioned: she’s human.) There’s a clever and moving scene at a waystation campground on the trail where an experienced hiker helps her whittle down her ridiculously overlarge pack that becomes a metaphor for the problems in her life, a literal “losing the baggage” bit. (Do you really need to hang on to this thing you’re lugging around? Well, no… but this other thing is kind of important to keep.) And the film’s approach to Cheryl’s issues is wonderfully humane and generous: There is no shaming for her past on the part of the film, and Cheryl’s conclusions — that she can accept her mistakes as part of how she got to where she is now — contain a wisdom that we can all learn from. Forgiving ourselves might be another hard thing, but it’s another hard thing worth doing.

This is a film full of spectacular landscapes, both of the exterior natural world and the interior human spirit. Reese Witherspoon looks like hell from her months in the wild without a stylist or a shower? Fuck that. She looks gorgeous: vital, strong, energetic, happy. Triumphant.

viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Wild for its representation of girls and women.

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Wild (2014)
US/Can release: Dec 03 2014
UK/Ire release: Jan 16 2015

MPAA: rated R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, drug use)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • Bluejay

    I think it’s worth mentioning that Witherspoon deserves credit not just for her performance, but for being the primary force behind adapting and producing this film (and other female-driven stories).


    Looking forward to seeing this, and to reading the book (Strayed’s
    Tiny Beautiful Things is devastatingly good).

  • Absolutely.

  • Matt Clayton

    Glad to hear you like it. Your review is a breath of fresh air compared to the negative review on Gawker, where the reviewer refuses to separate Reese’s acting from her personal life. That kind of cynicism extends to her statement: “In any case, this movie was awful, and terrible for women.”


  • I do not recognize the movie that review is commenting on.

  • Beowulf

    Reese Witherspoon’s benighted bid to win an Academy Award.
    So sad.

  • Bluejay

    Why is it benighted? Have you seen it?

  • Danielm80

    She’s considered one of the leading contenders for a Best Actress nomination.


    She may not win, of course, but still: In what world is a probable Oscar nomination “sad”? If you consider massive acclaim and popularity a disappointment, your life must be pretty spectacular.

  • Beowulf

    Massive acclaim and popularity? Are you talking about “The Interview”?

  • Bluejay

    We’re discussing “Wild.” What are YOU talking about?

  • Matt Clayton

    The author has an axe to grind, and that colors her stance on the movie. And I don’t see anything in “Wild” that reflects what Leah Finnegan saw either.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Perhaps he is thinking of all the criticism actress Charlize Theron receiving back in 2003 when she took a similar “glammed down” approach to her role in Monster and got criticized by a lot of online critics because of it.

    Yet more proof that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • Tonio Kruger

    Personally I prefer this version of “Wild”:


  • Tonio Kruger

    True. But I can think of a lot of critically praised movies I have seen in the past where I was obviously seeing something different than whatever it was that the critics were seeing. And I have noticed that I am not the only one in my circle of acquaintances who has had that experience.

  • Danielm80

    I’m confused. Charlize Theron’s performance was widely praised, and she won several major awards, including an Oscar. Was there a controversy I missed, or are you talking about online trolls, like the people who said, “Angelina Jolie’s boobs were so much hotter before she had that surgery”?

  • Tonio Kruger

    I am talking about people like online critic Nathaniel Rogers of the Film Experience site who had quite a bit to say on that controversy on both the old Cinemarati site and his own website back when the movie was still a new release.

    The most charitable thing I could say about the online trolls that you mention is that I prefer to think about them as little as possible.

  • Rebecca Dalmas

    I actually want to walk this trail and a few more, one day, when life is at a different stage. I want to be there, but I’ll take this (and lots of shorter walks) until then.

  • Danielm80

    Can you point to an article or a review about the controversy? I’ve tried multiple web searches, and I can’t find a single reference to it. But I’ve certainly been known to miss things. Were there critics other than Rogers who attacked Charlize Theron? Because I’m not sure that one reviewer’s opinion, on a website that no longer exists, makes Charlize “benighted.”

    That Poe song is terrific, by the way.

  • MisterAntrobus

    I love that Hollywood’s definition of “looks like hell” is Reese Witherspoon without makeup.

  • Tonio Kruger

    I found nothing on either of Nathaniel’s websites but I did find this item from two online critics:


    I guess next time I should rely more on my research skills than on my memory — which is not bad but unfortunately not always as great as it should be. My bad.

    That said:

    That Poe song is terrific, by the way.

    Thank you.

    I’m glad to see we can agree on at least one thing.

  • RogerBW

    And that “woman appears on screen with less makeup than usual” is considered an important thing to say about the film.

  • Martha Kuhn

    Just finished the book and very much looking forward to the film.

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