Director Jean-Marc Vallee has a way of getting great performances out of actors.  His last film, Dallas Buyers Club, won 3 Oscars including awards for both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto; Wild has received nominations for Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern – but what did we think of the movie?

What’s It About? Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a woman who embarks upon the solo PCT – the Pacific Crest Trail – hiking hundreds of miles from Mexico to Canada. She does this to stop her life spiralling out of control following some turmoil. En route she meets people and overcomes obstacles in nature (and footwear) as she travels on this journey both physically and mentally.

Verdict: Dallas Buyers Club, was good but featured two exceptional performances. Is Wild as a film as good as Witherspoon’s performance?

It seems a long time ago that Witherspoon wasn’t considered a serious actress, but taking on this role is her biggest test yet.  Based on the bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, it’s very much Cheryl’s story and so it’s Witherspoon’s performance that carries the movie. The success of the film really comes down to whether you can buy the always-beautiful, sweet Witherspoon as someone who’d take heroin and sleep around – and Oscar voters obviously can.  If you’re on board with this then it is a very enjoyable, inspirational film, at times wrought with emotion. Cheryl in her tent in Wild

It would be tough for Reese to beat her excellent, Oscar-winning portrayal of June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, but this is right up there as the very best of her career. She gives it her all with a very physical performance, ‘glammed down’ and with sores and bruises all over her body – and she hasn’t shied away from any of the sex or drug scenes either.

As Cheryl hikes, she’s pushed to her absolute limits, but unlike ‘survival’ films like All Is Lost and 127 Hours, it’s the people she meets and not the natural elements that largely create the tension. It has the feel of a post-apocalyptic movie at times, as she goes days without seeing anybody, and, as we’ve learnt from things like The Road of The Walking Dead, the people you meet might not always be friendly. Near the beginning of her trail, Cheryl, a lone young woman, meets an older man and gets in his truck before fearing for the position she’s put herself in. This, and later moments of vulnerability, are handled brilliantly.

Wild succeeds mainly in the relationships it shows us, from the people she meets along the way to Cheryl’s relationship with her mother, Bobbi. As Bobbi, Laura Dern puts in her best performance in years (though it’s still somewhat of a surprise she’s been Oscar-nominated), and the bond between Cheryl (both as a child and an adult) is sweet without being too sickly and sentimental. The job of the flashbacks is essentially to show us just why she is embarking on such a trek, and piece by piece they do just about achieve this.

Cheryl hiking in WildA movie about such a great hike, let alone one with the emotional backstory this has, should be gruelling and difficult to watch. It should take us on the hike with her and we should feel what she feels. Aside from an excruciating toenail scene at the very beginning, the film just doesn’t achieve this.

Where it does score highly though, is in its humour. From the screenplay by Nick Hornby to a fair amount of schadenfreude such as Cheryl trying to put on her backpack, it has funny moments throughout, breaking up the emotional or tense scenes.

As you’d expect from a movie about someone hiking across the USA, some of the scenery is spectacular, from the dusty, desert-like beginnings to deep-in-snow California, though we don’t always get to see the full scope of this, as it tends to opt for fairly-close up, handheld shots instead of large vistas.

As a comparison, it’s worth mentioning the similarly titled Into the Wild, which starred Emile Hirsh as a young man who gave up his life to live on his own in the wild.  The films are certainly similar in more than just name, and focus on the people from different walks of life they meet along the way. Into the Wild is a far tougher, more affecting and emotional film to watch. Wild features a great performance, but it still feels like a fairly lightweight film, not quite getting to grips with the emotional weight of the themes it shows.

Final Words: Reese Witherspoon gives an incredible performance in a movie that doesn’t quite do it justice. It should shake off any remaining doubters that she really can act, but the movie itself is perhaps an easier watch than it should be. That said, it’s funny in places, beautiful in others, and worth watching for Reese’s performance alone.

Wild is in UK cinemas on 16 January 2015.

Photo credit: Anne Marie/ Twentieth Century Fox