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Review: Reese Witherspoon carries 'Wild' (w/video)

Reese Witherspoon commits to playing Cheryl Strayed, a heroin and sex addict who hiked 1,100 miles.
Reese Witherspoon commits to playing Cheryl Strayed, a heroin and sex addict who hiked 1,100 miles.
Published Dec. 18, 2014

Rather than running from her problems, Cheryl Strayed decided to walk — nearly 1,100 miles along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail.

Cheryl's problems were plentiful: heroin and sex addiction, a ruined marriage, her mother's death. Her hike was cathartic, which isn't easily conveyed in movies but Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild comes close, its free-form, flashback structure kept interesting by Reese Witherspoon's raw, Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Cheryl.

This is a performance without ego or modesty, for a character without self-respect, played by Witherspoon as unvarnished as any pampered movie star can be expected. "Brave" is the adjective some reviewers use, but "honest" is more accurate and tougher for an actor to locate. Witherspoon fully commits to Cheryl's pitiable ways and degrading herself to play them, stripped bare physically and emotionally. The Oscar winner has never been better.

Witherspoon carries this movie like Cheryl toted her backpack, dramatically overstuffed and unsteadily at first. Nick Hornby's screenplay, adapted from Strayed's memoir of the journey, spends much shuffled time on Cheryl's history without revealing much of it. We stay intrigued, but Vallee and Hornby push their luck with the stream of consciousness idea.

In more linear fashion, Cheryl's story is simple: Her self-destructive habits send this inexperienced hiker on a daunting walk, a chance to do penance, get sober, clear her head. Then she does, fairly uneventfully, so Vallee shuffles the chronology with something at every turn flipping the flashback switch in Cheryl's head. Most are about her mother (Laura Dern), a spirited optimist whose death from cancer soured Cheryl on optimism. Others are about the sordid life Cheryl leaves behind with each step.

After two movies, Vallee is proven to be an actor's filmmaker; Dallas Buyers Club won Oscars for Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, and Witherspoon is a likely contender for Wild. After portraying someone who hiked 1,100 miles, Witherspoon's finish line could be the Dolby Theater stage.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.