Reese Witherspoon showed such promise in the 1990s, with at least two bold and hilarious performances (Freeway and Election). Then came box office success with 2001's Legally Blonde, and Witherspoon devolved into a generically perky romcom actress. Her choice of material became safe – and, her Walk the Line Oscar win notwithstanding, she became irrelevant.
Then something funny happened: Reese Witherspoon got arrested.
You've probably seen or heard about the footage: Witherspoon's husband was pulled over for drunk driving in Atlanta in 2013, and an even drunker Witherspoon razzed the cops and wound up with her mugshot on the Internet. The squeaky-clean star accidentally reminded the world that she could be feisty, unpredictable, and messily human. Coincidentally or not, her work started getting interesting again.
Wild may be the culmination of what some are cheekily calling the "Reese-aissance". Sure, her role as the real life Cheryl Strayed, who hiked alone for three months along the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, has "Oscar bait" written all over it. But Witherspoon's performance is no-nonsense – it's as plain and approachable as her deglamorized visage.
The film itself is more than just a one-woman show, as Witherspoon tromps across California and her memory banks. Through multiple flashbacks, we see what led to Strayed's decision to hike alone for over 1,100 miles: the death of her mother (Laura Dern) and her subsequent spiral into drug abuse and promiscuity. (The former Cheryl Nyland legally changed her surname to "Strayed" after her divorce, presumably as an act of penance for her lost years. The scene is in the movie.)
Wild's soundtrack employs a melange of song fragments (Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa" is a highlight), dialogue from random conversations, and Witherspoon talking to herself, and I think it accurately conveys the stream of consciousness of a lonely hiker. This artsy approach may strike some as pretentious, but I liked it. The scenes between Witherspoon and Dern didn't do much for me – perhaps because I don't care for Dern as an actress – but the dreamy mix of sounds and images pairs nicely with the film's location shooting on the Pacific Crest Trail itself.
I won't defend this film too strongly. Some people won't go for it. But it strikes a nice balance between the quirky details of a person's life and the universal appeal of getting away from it all. It eschews high drama for the day to day triumphs and turmoils of the long-term hiker. Strayed is both a unique person and an everywoman, and Witherspoon is likable in both capacities.
Finally, I found in this film an understated nostalgia for 1995, the last year before the Web and the mobile phone took over American life. When Strayed saunters into Ashland, Oregon the day after Jerry Garcia dies, the scene inadvertently symbolizes the end of the pre-digital era, where hiking the PCT still had hippie-ish undertones and wasn't merely a means for populating one's Instagram account with woodsy selfies.