'Wild' review: Reese Witherspoon gives performance of her career

In “Wild," Reese Witherspoon gives the performance of her career as heroin addict turned hiker Cheryl Strayed. Witherspoon embodies the physical and emotional travails of the grieving daughter/divorcée/druggie who leaves everything behind to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, trudging over a thousand miles from the Mojave Desert up to Canada.

Witherspoon already won an Oscar for portraying June Carter in the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line,” but it is as Strayed that Reese really deserves a gold statue. As the film jumps through her life and relationships, Strayed devolves and evolves from bookish schoolgirl to junkie to tenacious traveler. The steep character arc and non-linear format of the film gives Reese -- and the viewer -- one hell of a show. Each sequence allows Witherspoon to impressively play against type, and not many other roles this year have held as much Oscar weight.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) gets the best from his actors (see Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto’s Oscar-winning performances in “Dallas Buyers Club”) and he does it again with Witherspoon. But Vallée is not just an actor’s director; his visual flair is also commendable. “Wild” rolls like a fever dream thanks to its clever editing and tonal shifts from the suffocating suburban life to the inspiring (and frightening) great outdoors. Vallée surprises by mixing suspense and awe: One moment Cheryl is horizon-gazing at the pastoral beauty, the next fearing for her life from some creepy fellow travelers.

Writer Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Strayed’s memoir shows the complicated Rubik’s cube of her life. Disparate moments of exaltation, tragedy, drug abuse and her cathartic hike all twist apart before coming together into a cohesive, beautiful whole by the film’s end. Hornby’s script is at times wickedly funny, tender and intense.

Laura Dern gives a heartfelt performance as Cheryl’s mother Bobbi. Its like a companion piece to her role earlier this year in “The Fault in Our Stars.” In both films Dern puts up a façade of a sprightly ‘all-is-well’ when in fact everything is falling apart. Dern has perfected these cloistered emotions, and the dynamic between her and Witherspoon is wonderful. From the get-go, it is hard not to get swept up in their strong mother-daughter bond.

“Wild” also has one of the best uses of music in any movie this year. Often tunes feel completely out of place in movies, inserted by a music supervisor for the sole purpose of marketing a soundtrack. The songs here feel natural, like something that Cheryl would actually listen to, thus becoming part of the fabric of the story.  A bar or two of a song will play then will abruptly stop when the scene changes – like the side of that Rubik’s cube moving on. It’s striking and unexpected. The highlight is the use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa.”

“Wild” is a must-see movie, a gorgeous and inspiring film that showcases Reese Witherspoon at her Oscar-worthy best.

Fox Searchlight Pictures. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 55 minutes.