Top Ten Movies of 2014 — Number Ten

10 wild

There are so many ways for the film version of Wild to go wrong. Adapted from Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir of the same name, Wild is practically designed to lapse into feel-good platitudes cheering the triumph of the human soul over adversity. Following a personal spiral triggered in large part by the death of her beloved mother, Cheryl (played in the film by Reese Witherspoon) set out to hike the thousand-plus miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, despite (or maybe because of) her relative inexperience in such an endeavor. Nick Hornby’s screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction admirable cohere to present the monumental challenge of Cheryl’s trek, including an unflinchingly honest appraisal of the ways in which her own foolhardiness contributes to the hardship she faces. It’s not just the unpredictability of nature that besets Cheryl. The film smartly considers the way in which Cheryl’s gender can be both a boon on the trail (she develops a sort of cult hero status among her fellow hikers) and a cause for greater troubles (she is deeply vulnerable to the threats of morally questionable men, especially those toting hunting equipment in the isolated woods). The film even acknowledges that both results can coexist simultaneously, as when favored treatment is offered as a pretense to creepy, predatory behavior. Witherspoon has a wide range of emotions to cover in the film, but she’s never more compelling than when she’s narrowing her eyes, trying to appraise a situation, guardedness and wise self-preservation building with every one of her many, many steps. Wild doesn’t concentrate on the blandly life-affirming as other films might. Vallée prefers the truth of an immersive experience, notably in the swirl of fragmentary sounds and visuals that eventually lead to a memory, as fine of a depiction as I’ve even seen of the way the mind works when left to roam freely, especially out on an open, lonely trail. It is just one of many ways that Wild duly honors its most direct, simple, and profound thesis: it’s the journey that matters most.

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