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If Wild were just about a woman triumphing over nature, it wouldn’t be much of an experience. There are natural dangers aplenty, of course, in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling Oprah-pick memoir about hiking the thousand-plus miles of the Pacific Crest Trail without any training, experience, or much of a clue in order to glue the bits of her shattered life back together. But for some reason, whether it’s the filming or the performers, it’s hard to take nature too seriously here. Maybe that’s just because Strayed (as played by a surprisingly spot-on Reese Witherspoon) is a dense column of danger and self-demolition. There is little that the wild can throw at her that she couldn’t match and then some.

Strayed is first spotted on the side of a mountain, pulling a bloody toenail out after days of grueling walking in too-small boots under a groaning pack one could fit the possessions of a small nation-state into. Dropping one boot down the side of the mountain by mistake, she impulsively throws the other boot after it, screaming in rage. Director Jean-Marc Vallee shoots it in all the wrong ways, with slow-motion and elongated vocals, trying to create a drama that the story hasn’t earned yet. It’s a rough start to what is mostly a solidly-crafted and cathartic drama of discovery about a woman who nearly kills herself in order to learn how to live again.

Using the PCT hike as the story’s backbone, Vallee and screenwriter Nick Hornby string flashback moments alongside Strayed’s punishing, poorly-planned trek to show how she ended up there. The pieces are shuffled together none too neatly; gaps remain. There’s a rough childhood in rural Minnesota, where her happy-go-bad-luck mother Bobbi’s (Laura Dern) ability to grin through the worst that life has to offer (crippling illness, abusive husband) seems designed to drive the controlled and judgmental Strayed away. Strayed’s young adult life is a self-annihilating disaster zone of addictions and promiscuity. Whether nodding off in a filthy shooting gallery or throwing her boot off a mountain, her impulse to punish herself for the perceived sins of her youth is the same.

With the exception of a shot where she pulls a guidebook off a shelf nearly at random, Wild doesn’t examine why Strayed sends herself into the middle of nowhere. That would be beside the point. It simply picks up with her as she starts clambering up that first long and hot stretch of trail, having never put her pack on, tried to use her portable gas stove, or even set up her tent. At one point, talking to a fellow hiker, she gets angry over the fact that snow could force her to detour and not finish her planned stretch of trail; he shrugs and suggests just adding a few more miles on at the end to make up for it. The film is more interested in the journey itself and not the destination, which is one of its saving graces.

As in his all-hands-on-deck Dallas Buyers Club, Vallee shows he’s a director willing to use every trick in the book to goose his film’s emotional quotient. But here, he’s working with a quieter band of actors. Witherspoon is no McConaughey, and for this story that’s a good thing. Strayed isn’t some superwoman overcoming incredible odds; she’s a pissed-off twenty-something trying to figure out what she doesn’t know before it kills her. Witherspoon gives her a deeply-layered strength but also a chaotic randomness that keeps the story unbalanced enough to keep it from ever feeling like too much of a self-help parable. Most of the rest of the cast (particularly a standout Gaby Hoffman as a tough-love old friend giving tough-love advice, as she often does) also remains on the quietly downbeat side of things; Dern’s manic-pixie-mom being the one exception.

By pulling back on showier thespian antics, Vallee better captures the experience of going it alone in a deadly landscape of blindingly hot dry valleys and snow-covered mountains. If he had pulled back on some of the more exasperating directorial flourishes, the result might have been even more dramatically satisfying. There are some perfectly balanced moments whenever Strayed runs into men on the isolated trail where the tension sings like a plucked wire. The flickers of terror that register on Witherspoon’s face say almost more than any of Hornby’s dialogue could about what the trail is doing to her. Being terrified shows that she might actually care whether she lives or dies.

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