To begin with, Wild is a great deal better than 2007’s Into the Wild, its most direct antecedent in the “people finding themselves by dropping out and trekking through nature, meeting several people along the way who give symbolic life lessons, and ‘Wild’ is in the title” genre. And really, that’s all I needed to declare it a success, so the rest is gravy. Which is just as well, since for every single thing Wild gets right - and that is not an unimpressive list - it gets something else wrong.

Based on the life and memoirs of Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie (it was the first project made by her new production company), Wild tells the story of the three months in that woman’s life during which she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the southern to the northern border of the United States. This trip, at least as it’s described in Nick Hornby’s screenplay, was a self-conscious attempt to reboot a life that had gone tremendously wrong since the death of her mother (Laura Dern, in flashbacks that amount to more of an extended cameo than a proper “supporting” role): heroin, sex with every random man who asked, a failed marriage, grinding poverty. And to the surprise of nobody watching - they made the movie, after all, and it’s not being marketed as a severe piece of icy art cinema that involves death and hopelessness - that’s exactly what proved to happen, though only through a great deal of trial and error and being generally miserable for long stretches of the hike.

That, more than anything, is what puts Wild head and shoulders above Into the Wild: it is much freer in admitting that Cheryl entered her grand quest blindly and a bit stupidly, and the task of discovering what her priorities and emotional needs were was an extension of the more immediate task of figuring out how to survive the experience she’s committed herself to. Which even manages to make the film more inspirational than it would have been without the cold splash of reality, since it does such a fine job in the first third of making it really clear just how fucking hard hiking the entire length of the PCT could be, and how much untapped self-reliance Cheryl need to find in order to cope with it.

The other great strength of the film is Witherspoon, giving a fearlessly physical performance, pretty easily the best work of her career. The process-oriented nature of Hornby’s script robs the character of some nuance and leaves the film a bit thinner of a psychological portrait than it apparently fancies itself, but within the limits thus established by the writing, Witherspoon is very nearly perfect: channeling Cheryl’s rage at setbacks and her small pride in triumphs with unforced clarity; she captures the wearying monotony of walking and walking and walking with a beleaguered heaviness that does all the work of suggesting the passage of time that the film, obliged with keeping itself under two hours, doesn’t have the luxury to depict. And when the script moves away from depicting the act of hiking, Witherspoon does lovely work coming to life in the more intimate, character-focused moments, giving exactly the right energy to Hornby’s sardonic humor and quiet desperation.

So okay, that’s the good part. The bad part is possibly also due to Hornby, for the film’s structure is a bit dire; it’s absolutely due to Jean-Marc Vallée, directing with as clumsy a hand as this scenario can manage to survive (which isn’t the worst he could do, you understand: the film still survives, after all). Three prestige dramas in - The Young Victoria and Dallas Buyers Club are his babies also - I’m not entirely sure what it is that Vallée gets wrong about filmmaking, since it doesn’t seem to be the same thing every time. But in the case of Wild, it’s an enervating mixture of lead-footed obviousness and arch, artsy, pretentious-ass bullshit. A good portion of the film is given over to flashbacks to Cheryl's tragic and then dissolute life, and they are ushered into the film with the sophisticated grace of a rhinoceros driving a go-kart. Ham-handed visual links, foggy narrative cues, and pensive close-ups to Witherspoon's sad, shocked face, and then we're off into jagged montages of split-second shots of images from Cheryl's memory. It's hard to say if it's more hokey or annoying. And if there's no worse editing in the film than the flashback intros, it's not for want of trying: editors Martin Pensa and Vallée himself (under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy) take undue joy in chopping the film all to hell, cutting together innocuous scenes of Cheryl walking or setting up her tent or sorting her supplies into a ratty series of jump cuts that require only "Yakety Sax" instead of Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" as the underscore to complete the effect (and boy, points for originality on picking that song as the repeating motif). It's acutely distracting, and coupled with the strained artiness of the symbolic flashbacks, the film's entire aesthetic feels like a half-assed attempt at doing a '60s European art film, so half-assed that it's closer to being a parody.

And as for the repeated use of a fox with its head adorably cocked to the side as the most symbolic symbol of them all: I don't know if that's on Hornby, or Vallée, or producer/spirit-guide Witherspoon, or anyone else involved, but shame on everyone who had the chance to say, "you guys, this is the worst idea", and didn't.

But let's go ahead and retrench to positivity for the wrap-up, because all things considered, Wild is a pretty fine, moving example of Oscarbait going more or less right. The story is terrific, and Witherspoon embodies it with vigor and gritty commitment, and the fact that the visuals used to express the story are kind of a shambles is... well, it's a fact, but there are worse facts to contend with.