Wild is an ode to women’s inner strength. The film is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, which tells the story of how she hiked 1,110 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The film starts off with Cheryl – played by Reese Witherspoon – sitting at the edge of a cliff in a beautiful landscape of the Northern Pacific pulling a toenail off a bloody, battered foot. She has been hiking for a few weeks at that point and Cheryl is in pain, but she is also resolute, refusing to allow that pain nor the vast landscape overwhelm her. The scene, though a little hard to watch, sets the tone for the journey we are about to embark on with Cheryl: a lonesome trail filled with physical pain and emotional mountains to be climbed. Cheryl decides to embark on the hike after finishing a painful divorce, still grieving the loss of her dear mother and feeling guilty about the missteps she took while mourning, such as casual sex with strangers and picking up a heroine habit.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation focuses on Cheryl’s inner struggle. Vallée’s portrayal of the open spaces and the solitude on the trail is quite stunning, but the real cause for admiration is his treatment of Cheryl’s guilt-ridden past, which appears as flashbacks scattered throughout the film. The fact that the novel Wild is a bestseller can be tricky for a director, as many will inevitably compare the film to their personal experiences with the novel. However, this film can stand on its own as a different experience. The film medium is not as personal, but it allows for further introspection by the viewer.


Cheryl’s memories of sorrow mixed with real happy moments that feature her mother (playfully portrayed by Laura Dern) are at the heart of the emotional baggage Cheryl lugs around the Pacific Trail. The memories seem few and scattered enough so that the story is not an expositional, linear sob story. Rather, Vallée invites the audience to join the journey, making connections on their own and offering a non-chronological narrative that showcases a deeply flawed heroin. While you might think it’s hard to root for a woman who engages in promiscuous behavior, has addictive tendencies and seems to have lost her vision; her redeeming qualities are so raw and real it’s hard not to feel for her. Her journey is as much a self-discovery as it is a re-invention. In a letter she writes to her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski),  she ponders:

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself:
What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently? What if I’d wanted to fuck every single one of those men?What if heroin taught me something?


As with the writing, Witherspoon has the ability to capture brutal honesty mixed with an intense vulnerability. To convey an internal struggle is not an easy feat, especially for an actress known for her comedic roles. In Wild, Witherspoon sets Cheryl free through a series of cathartic moments. Witherspoon has also earned a nomination for Best Actress from the Golden Globes, a well-earned nod for the actress who appears in almost every frame of the film.

The film’s cinematography captures the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the heat of the Mojave desert to the green and luscious forestry in Washington State. The emotional journey is also full of vivid imagery, from anger and deep sorrow over the mother’s death to forgiveness and heartache. One of the most poignant moments of the film comes when Cheryl encounters a boy, Kyle (Evan O’Toole), out on a walk with his grandmother. After a brief, polite conversation Kyle shares with Cheryl that he has some problems that he’s not supposed to talk about with strangers. Cheryl then over-shares too, opens up about her mother’s death and suddenly saying it out loud changes the tone of the conversation. The encounter is both a painful reminder of the sadness that has marked her and an acceptance of the past.

Wild runs 115 minutes and is rated R (sexual content, nudity, drug use and language). It opens this Friday in select theaters. In South Florida, the only indie theater showing it is O Cinema Miami Beach. For other theaters across the nation showing it, visit the film’s homepage.

Ana Morgenstern

(Copyright 2014 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mud+movie+postersConcerning itself with a fugitive hiding out on an island on an Arkansas river and the boys who discover him, there could have been a great mystery at the heart of Mud. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) exude an adventurous spirit straight out of Tom Sawyer. After a boat trip to an island, they bump into a scruffy man who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He’s waiting for the love of his life for whom he killed a man to protect. Blinded by a subconscious desire that true love exists, Ellis feels compelled to help Mud.

The film, the third by Jeff Nichols, has a lot of potential but never reaches the heights of mystery and drama that would do justice to the cruel awakening these boys are in for. The problem lies in how long the film dwells on the naiveté of the two boys and how helpless they become when things fall apart around them. The two-hour-and-10-minute film could have used some tightening and less exposition for a more compelling experience.

As his parents edge toward divorce, Ellis can only watch from outside. The film even opens with him looking into the window of his home on the river as his mother (Sarah Paulson) sits with his father (Ray McKinnon) at the table. She tells him, “I just want to have a conversation,” as he hides behind a newspaper. Meanwhile, Ellis cannot help but feel swept away by Mud waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Mud casts an intriguing shadow early in the film, before he and the boys build a hasty bond that soon dampens out any ominous quality he might have had early in the film. mud-800x533Mud makes an almost ghostly first appearance as the boys investigate a boat stuck high in a tree on the island, noticing the detritus of someone having made a home of it. Boot prints inside and near the boat reveal a cross imprinted in the heel. On the way back to their skiff, they spy the figure of a man in the distant shore fishing. The boys approach with curiosity. Mud does not seem bothered and nonchalantly answers questions about the snake tattooed on his arm (he survived a bite) and the crosses in his boot heels (“To ward off evil spirits”).

After he shares his murderous tale of woe, the boys agree to help him with food while he waits. Soon enough, the boys get in over their heads, mostly driven by Ellis’ hopeful belief in reuniting the lovers. It makes for an intriguing coming of age into disillusionment fraught with danger. As Juniper appears in town, vengeful men soon follow.

The film has some brilliant moments of atmosphere throughout: that boat discovered perched in a tree, a crabby geezer living on the river who shoots snakes in the water (Sam Shepard), a slimy fellow with slicked-back hair seething for Mud’s dead body. The score and songs by David Wingo feel as transporting as the wide vistas across the waterway.

The acting is sincere, and, with the help of some false teeth, McConaughey will continue to get the hype for his continued acceptance of roles that subvert the romantic leading roles he used to take with assistance from his abs.Matthew-McConaughey-Mud The boys have great presence throughout. Lofland brings a serious, squinting levity to Neckbone, who has no parents beyond an uncle (a low-key Michael Shannon) who looks after him. Sheridan plays Ellis with an introspective melancholy. He carries his character’s yearning for affection with a light touch that shows just enough vulnerability.

Mud is not a bad film, just a bit anti-climactic, despite a dramatic shootout toward the end. Nichols maintained such a creepy sense of mystery throughout his previous film, Take Shelter (my review: ‘Take Shelter’ offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema). I had hoped for a similar experience here. Instead, he has produced a rather straight-forward drama that dwells too much in repeating its theme only to build toward a sappy ending that overshadows its notion that “true love” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Hans Morgenstern

Mud is rated PG-13 and runs 130 minutes. It opened in South Florida at most major multiplexes yesterday. The studio invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. The film is playing at many theaters nationwide now. Here is a list of them (that’s a hotlink).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)