There’s an unwritten playbook for pretty actresses fighting for Oscar attention. One is regal, playing historical figures (Cate Blanchett, Elizabeth, The Aviator, Elizabeth: The Golden Age) or delving into the rich dramatic roots of a horrible historic atrocity (Kate Winslet, The Reader). The other is dirty.
This might mean slaughtering a squeaky clean image made on kids movies and rom-coms by playing a severe screw-up like a junkie or a diseased prostitute (Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married, Les Miserables). Or it may mean abandoning all those trappings of ego and Hollywood glamor by letting yourself look ragged (Blanchett Blue Jasmine, Jennifer Lawrence Winter’s Bone) or flat-out ugly (Nicole Kidman and her big fake nose The Hours). Well, in Wild, its producer and star Reese Witherspoon dives deep into dirty to make you forget her embarrassing celebrity scandal (“Do you know my name?”) and remember her as an outstanding and dedicated actress. And though Wild is an obvious bit of Oscar bait, that’s not to say it’s not outstanding.
This drama has Witherspoon hitting all that “real actress” shtick hard. She skirts radiant costumes in favor of pit-stained t-shirts. She bellows in soul-shattering agony both physical and emotional. She acts out scenes of depraved drug abuse, regrettable sex, and regrettable sex spurred by depraved drug abuse. Is seeing Witherspoon totally nude, being vigorously fucked doggie-style essential to the narrative? No. But doesn’t it show how much she’s giving to this role?
Wild tells the confounding true story of Cheryl Strayed, who — reeling in grief over her mother’s death — made a string of bad decisions that led to her be a junkie and depressed divorcee. Looking to correct her course, she sets out on the Pacific Crest Trail to trek a thousand miles alone. It’s the kind of decision that should and does raise eyebrows. But director Jean-Marc Vallée smoothly pulls us in from the film’s first scene.
Strayed (Witherspoon) sits on a majestic mountaintop that overlooks a picturesque valley. But she isn’t admiring the view. Instead her sites are set on her big toe with its nail so badly damaged she’s making the excruciating decision to rip it off. She does and roars with pain, leaving us to wonder who is this woman and how the hell did she get here.
Thankfully, Nick Hornby’s savvy script rejects chronological order. Instead it focuses on her trek allowing flashbacks to fill in backstory, breaking up what could be monotony while underlying Strayed’s present stresses and strains. In this way, the structure allows us our sneering at this unconventional challenge, then steps us through the journey to it. Basically, I’d still never want to tackle this hike, but the film made me understand why Strayed did.
It’s beautifully shot, well paced and emotionally riveting. The only reason I can think of that Wild isn’t getting tons of Best Picture talk — like the strikingly similar 127 Hours did just a few years back — is because movies about women are still perceived as “niche” and “special consideration” when it comes to the old and stodgy Academy. But Witherspoon will be recognized. She played by the unwritten rules and delivered a performance that is not just layered, vulnerable and compelling but also gritty, ugly, and ultimately inspirational.
Wild is a showcase for Witherspoon, and one that is visually striking and emotionally gut wrenching. What remains to be seen is if it’s ugly enough for Oscar gold.