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I remember the first time I saw Reese Witherspoon. It was in the 1996 satirical thriller Freeway, and she was playing a juvenile delinquent who runs away from home and is pursued by a murderous pedophile. There’s a courtroom scene late in that film when the bad guy is brought to justice, and when the trashy heroine sees how badly she’s managed to maim him in the process, she squeals gleefully, “Holy shit!” I remember seeing Witherspoon do that and thinking, “Damn, who is this?”

That moment sticks out all the more because it was so atypical of what came later. Witherspoon created an iconic Type A teenage character in Election, but the success of 2001’s Legally Blonde wound up pigeonholing her into a series of Nice Girl roles. It wasn’t unprofitable — she won an Oscar for her skillful turn as June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. Still, all the Nice Girls seemed to wall her off from much of anything interesting, not to mention clash with her real-life personality, and her choice of innocuous material (Four Christmases, How Do You Know, This Means War) didn’t help. Lately she’s given interviews describing meetings with Hollywood executives who told her that they didn’t want to see her playing characters who had sex, took drugs, or showed up on screen naked. Well, she does all those things in Wild, and it reminds us of the wildness of her early work that might yet salvage her career.

The movie is based on the acclaimed memoir by Cheryl Strayed, who detailed her struggles to cope with her mother’s death in the mid-1990s that led her spiraling into divorce, sexual promiscuity, and heroin use. Finally, she pulled herself out of her troubles by impulsively deciding to walk the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts in California at the Mexican border and goes all the way into Canada. Despite scorching desert heat, heavy mountain snows, and her own total lack of experience as a hiker, Strayed managed to traverse 1,100 miles and find a way forward through her own life.

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The film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the suddenly prolific French-Canadian who directed last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. The Pacific Crest Trail, which got a boost in business after the book was published, can expect another uptick given the way Vallée and cinematographer Yves Bélanger revel in its natural beauties. The director cuts the lyricism with some slapstick comedy, as Cheryl hikes the trail with a backpack that’s so overloaded that her fellow hikers nickname it “Monster.”

Strayed’s memoir is a challenging subject because so much of it takes place inside her head. Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby deal with that dexterously by intercutting Cheryl’s hike on the trail with flashbacks depicting her earlier life and filling the soundtrack with snatches of remembered conversations, poems, songs, and other thoughts that bubble to the surface amid the walk’s tedium. Often they’re grimly funny. As Cheryl thumbs a ride from a strange man, she thinks, “Hi. I’m an unaccompanied female hitchhiker. Want to give me a ride so you can rape and dismember me?”

That last bit isn’t an idle thought. As a woman traveling alone, Cheryl has to keep her guard up in encounters with men. Even though most of them turn out to be friendly and helpful (like the farmer played beautifully by W. Earl Brown and the journalist played amusingly by Mo McRae), there’s a meeting with a bowhunter (Charles Baker) that turns harrowing when he does nothing more than comment on how her panties look on her.

The movie may not be as convincing as the book in depicting Cheryl’s journey toward spiritual fulfillment, but Wild’s considerable power is bound up with Reese Witherspoon’s performance and what we know about her. Just as the long walk and extended solitude boil Cheryl down to her essence, they seem to scrape away all the movie-star trappings and the psychic baggage and the expectations that audiences have placed on Witherspoon over the years. In what’s turned out to be a piss-poor year for lead actress roles, Witherspoon is surely a mortal lock for an Oscar nomination at least, and she helps establish a much-needed female entry into the ancient genre of stories about men who find their authentic selves by living alone in nature. Yet even more importantly, being thrown back on her own resources seems to show both Witherspoon and us the qualities that are most central to her, the quiet strength amid the inconvenient, furious bursts of emotion that sometimes come out. This feral yet grounded performance encourages us to look at Witherspoon with new eyes, and that is Wild’s real achievement.

 

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Wild

Starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. Rated R. Opens Friday in Dallas, wider on Dec 25.

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