Wild

Wild tells of a woman’s solo trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, a mildly perilous but undeniably gruelling stretch of the American border reaching from Mexico to the edge of Canada. It’s trudged by hipster tourists, threatening rednecks, and now, Reese Witherspoon, playing real life hiker Cheryl Strayed, whose 1995 memoir inspires Jean-Marc Vallée’s latest film. Reeling from the death of her young mother (Laura Dern, in flashbacks) and seeking escape from her duelling drug and sex addictions, Cheryl commits to the 1,600 kilometre walk hoping a new, better version of herself can be forged in its crucible. Witherspoon similarly commits to the role, delivering her best, most vital work in an age.

Yet, the picture itself fails to cross the most fundamental bar in cinema: simply put, it’s boring. As he did with Dallas Buyers Club, Vallée squanders fine performances on a story he simply can’t convince us needs to be told. The tools he uses – elliptical, dream-like editing; naturalistic cinematography – seem to herald a story of importance, but the content underwhelms. And when something of cinematic significance occurs – in this, run-ins with potential attackers – the inclusion of fabricated drama where none was prior reeks of exploitation. Witherspoon puts in the work and gets results, but the why and the what of her trip and its spirit-saving properties are never fully conveyed. I’ve always believed Nick Hornby books make for better movies. Here, a Nick Hornby screenplay was probably better left as someone else’s book.

Wild

It’s no easy task making a person’s lengthy walk entertaining, though John Curran and Mia Wasikowska managed it in Tracks. (That film’s subject, Robyn Davidson, strolled 2,700km across Western Australian desert. It’s not a competition. I know, because Davidson wins handily.) Strayed’s spunky sense of humour strives to keep us engaged; her scribbled journal entries and swear-laden frustrations about mushy food undercutting what could have seemed like a proud, self-serious The Secret-esque screed. (One of the very first and funniest scenes has Witherspoon struggling mightily with a backpack twice her size, and it sets the tone nicely.)

Sure, there are worthwhile moments throughout, and I appreciated that the journey ends not with Strayed’s head held high but at her lowest ebb. (Again, to be chalked up to Witherspoon’s brave turn, perhaps guided by Vallée, I’ll yield.) Dern is an ethereal, angelic presence, as she is in real life. Brief appearances by Gaby Hoffman, Kevin Rankin, Thomas Sadoski and W. Earl Brown have never been unwanted. Still, I’d be lying if I said my patience wasn’t tested by Wild. The thing that truly wandered throughout it wasn’t Strayed. It was my attention.

Wild arrives in Australian cinemas January 22, 2015.