London Film Festival: Reese Witherspoon returns to form in this adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir
Having steered both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto to Oscar glory with Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée could well be on course to repeat the trick for producer-star Reese Witherspoon with his new film Wild, adapted from the best-selling memoir by Cheryl Strayed.
We see how in 1995, more or less on a whim, the troubled 26-year-old Strayed (Witherspoon), decides to attempt a gruelling, 1,100-mile hike across a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. Almost comically under-prepared, she equips herself with a gigantic backpack (nicknamed 'The Monster' by a fellow hiker) and endures numerous setbacks, yet doggedly ploughs on. The film's jagged flashback structure gradually reveals what has brought Cheryl to this point, specifically, the heartbreaking loss of her free-spirited mother (Laura Dern) and a subsequent spiral into drug addiction and divorce.
Witherspoon has made some poor choices since her Oscar win for Walk the Line, so her gutsy performance here amounts to something of a comeback; she is quite simply outstanding, striking a riveting balance as she shows us this damaged soul's vulnerability, as well as her reserves of strength.
Vallée's direction is assured throughout and Nick Hornby's script does an excellent job of capturing the almost hallucinatory feel of the flashback sequences, aided by some terrific editing and inspired soundtrack choices. This is a film that knows, firstly, how a song can trigger even unwanted memories and, secondly, that a well-placed earworm can haunt you for days (Strayed's, appropriately, is Simon & Garfunkel's 'Homeward Bound', but Hornby later works in a related joke when she meets three young male hikers). Wild is a powerfully moving portrayal of a woman's physical and emotional journey that serves as a perfect companion piece to the likes of Into the Wild and Tracks.
Screening on Mon 13, Wed 15 and Thu 16 Oct as part of the London Film Festival. General release from Fri 16 Jan.