'Wild': What the Critics Are Saying

Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern star in Jean-Marc Vallee's adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir

Wild, out in limited theaters Wednesday, stars Reese Witherspoon as a grief-stricken, drug-addicted woman who takes a cathartic trek along the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Also featuring Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffmann and Thomas Sadoski, Jean-Marc Vallee's adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir has been generating awards buzz since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.

See more How Reese Witherspoon Transformed Her Perky Persona to Play a Girl Gone 'Wild'

Read what top critics are saying about Wild:

The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Farber writes, "Vallee has crafted a vivid wilderness adventure film that is also a powerful story of family anguish and survival, … alternately harrowing and heartbreaking, but laced with saving bursts of humor." Screenwriter Nick Hornby "adapts the book with finesse," and the film's "fractured storytelling is getting to be overused in contemporary movies, but it happens to be faithful to the way that Strayed wrote her book, and Hornby and Vallee make the intricate transitions pointed and crystal clear."

Additionally, "Witherspoon transforms herself both physically and emotionally" and "captures all the conflicting, dizzying emotions that the adventure stirs in her," as the star's "inherent appeal keeps us on Cheryl’s side even through her self-destructive exploits, but there’s nothing sentimental about the actress’ tart portrayal." She's matched onscreen by Dern, together creating "one of the most honest, complex portrayals of a mother-daughter relationship that we’ve seen in any recent movie."

The New York Times' A. O. Scott says Witherspoon acts with "grit, wit and unblinking honesty," and though there's "too much montage in the middle and too much voiceover at the end, and maybe not quite enough detail about some of Cheryl’s relationships," "what is most audacious about the film … is how closely it follows and how fully it respects Strayed’s free-associative, memory-driven narrative. In its thrilling disregard for the conventions of commercial cinematic storytelling, Wild reveals what some of us have long suspected: that plot is the enemy of truth, and that images and emotions can carry meaning more effectively than neatly packaged scenes or carefully scripted character arcs."

See more Reese Witherspoon's Career Through The Years

The New Yorker's David Denby says Wild "is about the renewal of self, but it’s a film made without sanctimony or piety," with "a good actress playing an intelligent, well-read, ambitious, but screwed-up woman." Yet Strayed's "skillfully structured adventure tale is more expressive than the film," as the flashback device, "which tries to keep us inside Cheryl’s head, becomes tiresome and far less satisfying than Strayed’s more sustained written recollections. The scenery, of course, could stop the heart of a mountain goat, and Wild has an admirable heroine, but the movie itself often feels literal-minded rather than poetic, busy rather than sublime, eager to communicate rather than easily splendid."

The Guardian's Henry Barnes notes it as "a tough road movie that skirts around most of the book's life-lesson psychodramas," as Vallee and the Dallas Buyers Club production team "capture perfectly the experience of the cyclical, repetitive nature of enduring an experience" and enjoy the bestial details of the adventure, but they don't exploit them, shooting sparingly and cutting away before anything gets rote." However, Dern "isn't given much scope to develop her part" and Hoffmann "is under-used."

New York Daily News' Elizabeth Weitzman calls it one of the "blatant bids for acting Oscars [that] are typically risk-averse, which adds up to be "predictable, but still disappointing nonetheless." She warns, "You may admire Witherspoon’s solid performance, but you won’t forget you’re watching a star. … The movie would likely have been better with Hoffmann — an actor who embraces danger — in the lead."

Email: Ashley.Lee@THR.com
Twitter: @cashleelee