Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

In her best role since she scored an Oscar for Walk the Line, Reese Witherspoon astonishes in Wild, director Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to last year’s Dallas Buyers Club.

The film is based on a memoir of Cheryl Strayed, and Witherspoon plays the author, who took it upon herself to make a solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail after tragedies in her life. The film becomes not only a fine showcase for Witherspoon, but a damn fine commercial for the PCT and those REI outdoor-gear stores.

The film opens on the not-so-pleasant sight of Strayed losing a toenail in bloody fashion to a wrong-sized boot while she’s days into her trek. It then flashes back a bit to the beginning of her hike; the film takes a non-chronological approach to its plot.

As she begins her walk, Strayed remembers moments from her childhood, her marriage, and her recent relationship with her mother (Laura Dern, shining in a small role). We discover that tragedy led her to extreme promiscuity and heroin use. Her decision to hike the PCT is an attempt to get herself on the right track.

Early during her walk, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Strayed comes across a man driving a tractor (a fantastic W. Earl Brown). Vallee does a nice job of creating a palpable sense of dread, and shows just how vulnerable a solo hiker could be, especially one lacking experience. The result of Strayed’s meeting with the tractor driver is fantastic and surprising storytelling.

The characters Strayed meets along the way are mostly positive, although a couple of male hikers put a dent in the goodness of the human race. A quick meeting with a man writing about hobos provides the film’s funniest moment.

While Wild is an uplifting film about redemption and Strayed’s personal triumphs, the movie also works as an authentic and informative film about the art of hiking. From Strayed’s struggles with her super-huge backpack, to her over-reliance on trail tanks for water, to her stopovers at community outposts along the trail, you get a true sense of what you might experience on such an expedition. It also teaches you that buying your hiking boots at REI would be a smart move.

With a few exceptions (such as her excellent turn in last year’s Mud), Witherspoon has been showing up in quite a few mediocre-to-lousy films (including this year’s Devil’s Knot). Before her Oscar glory and crap like Legally Blonde, Witherspoon was a reliable, off-the-beaten-track actress with projects like Freeway and Election. Wild represents the sort of role that got her a stellar reputation early in her career: She’s raw, edgy and real; there’s not a false note in her performance. You get a true sense she put herself through some physical hell for the role. It’s not a “showy” role, but rather one that allows her to be understated and stripped-down.

Dern breaks hearts as the eternally optimistic mom who attends college at the same time as her daughter and is thrown a nasty curveball—one that very much contributes to Strayed’s life missteps. Thomas Sadoski, as Strayed’s husband, Paul, captures the essence of a person very much in love and struggling with his wife’s actions. He remains civil in the most unpleasant and challenging of circumstances.

Vallée and company make a great-looking movie, covering all the terrains Strayed must’ve experienced on her hike, from desert to the snowy Sierras. He complements the meditative movie with beautiful choices for his soundtrack, including Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” and a stunning cover of the overlooked R.E.M. track “Walk Unafraid.” Many of the tracks sound as if they are being played on loudspeakers along the trail, with their musical strains gently bouncing off the trees and echoing through the forests.

Witherspoon is a lock for an Oscar nomination; she already received a nod from the Golden Globes. She deserves the accolades. Hopefully, Wild (and her small role in this year’s Inherent Vice) are indicative of more adventurous choices in her future.

Wild is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).