Best thing you’ll see all week: Wild

, | Movie reviews

Resist the temptation to think of Wild as a chick movie. Given the press, that might be hard to do. Writer Cheryl Strayed, whose memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada was adapted for the movie, and actor/producer Reese Witherspoon have used the movie’s publicity to advocate for women’s issues in Hollywood. Good for them. But this isn’t an issue movie. Instead, it’s a survival drama, minus the kind of catastrophe you get in 127 Hours or Into the Wild. That the lead character is a woman, and that she is largely defined by her relationship with another woman, shouldn’t even be an issue. It is, of course. But it shouldn’t be. And it shouldn’t be Wild’s identifying characteristic.

What makes Wild stand out is how it recreates the state of mind of someone alone in the wilderness. The visuals are gorgeous as the geography progresses from the barren desert through the cold and into the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest. It’s no accident this progression reflects Strayed’s state of mind. The muted soundtrack is music remembered from a radio playing in a car or heard from another room. Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s deftly edited flashbacks are sometimes a split second or sometimes drawn out sequences, all presented in the style of someone left alone with her thoughts and recollections, all telling us a bit more about this woman.

And this is a woman worth meeting. Another thing that sets Wild apart from stereotypical chick movies is that Wild isn’t about someone who was failed by her parents or betrayed by her spouse. She isn’t rising above a perceived victimization, finding her strength. She’s an already strong character taking stock of the decisions she has made. Reese Witherspoon shows no trace of Tracy Flick, a role that’s hounded her ever since Election. Grimly bearing the burden of that colossal backpack, she shows grit, weariness, self-awareness, and complexity. This is how you work your way out from under a career of romantic comedies. Once again, Laura Dern reveals herself as an actor who deserves far more recognition than she gets. Who else consistently channels raw emotional intensity like Dern? It’s exhausting, in a good way.

As a procedural about an absolutely ass-kicking hike, Wild considers simple issues like having the right shoes and stove fuel. It also deals with the maddening loneliness, offset by bursts of camaraderie among fellow hikers. Wild is a warmly humanistic movie, full of good people. But it’s scary for a woman to be alone in the wilderness in a different way than it is for a man. The isolation when you see that lone hiker in the distance has very different implications for a woman. Wild acknowledges this, but doesn’t cheaply exploit it.

Wild is currently available on Blu-ray, DVD, and video on demand. Support Qt3 and watch it on Amazon.com.

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