About halfway through Wild, the gritty journey of self-discovery from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), we find Reese Witherspoon lying in a hovel, naked and shooting black tar heroin. Yes, this is the same woman who once donned a cotton candy pink ensemble and fluffed her Clairol-perfect hair for Legally Blonde. In recent years, though, Witherspoon has undertaken a bit of a career renaissance, grubbying herself up for edgier fare, including her two most recent films– Mud and Devil’s Knot.

And now comes Wild—her most, well… wild yet.

Based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of her 1,000-mile epiphanal hike along the Pacific Coast Trail in 1995, Wild is Witherspoon like you’ve never seen her before. Her depiction of Strayed is both as refreshing and awe-inspiring as any performance by an actor this year, and it helps make Wild a gripping and fascinating piece of work overall—an anti-Eat Pray Love, if you will.

Told in a very effective non-linear narrative, Wild’s opening scene introduces us to Strayed, haggard and frazzled, mid-way through the hike. She’s shouting obscenities and heaving equipment down the side of a mountain. It’s only as the film goes on that we learn in flashbacks what led her both to this point and to undertake the harsh and exhausting journey in the first place.

The child of an abusive father, Strayed grew up with her brother (Keene McRae) and their divorced mother (Laura Dern) in Minneapolis. After going to school and working as a waitress, she proceeds to make pretty much ever poor life choice possible, while also getting plenty of drama and tragedy thrown at her, too. Thankfully, though, screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) never plays any of it up for sympathy, and we’re never meant to really “side” with Strayer at any point along the way. At its most base level, Wild is simply one woman’s attempt to sort her mess out. And we’re just there to watch it all unfold.

Vallée generally gives us only the briefest glimpses of Strayer’s former life—staccato bursts of information that brilliantly combine to paint a fairly bleak and brutally honest life story the more the movie rolls on—so it falls on Witherspoon herself to carry the film. This is her most raw and unflinching performance to date—a no-holds-barred clinic on how to become a character.

Strayer’s journey is not one that most people could undertake, and her life is not one that most actresses could do justice to, but Vallée and Witherspoon join forces to give us a story as captivating as any this year.

4.5/5 stars