Directed by: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written by: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern and Thomas Sadoski
Based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed, Wild is the story of Cheryl’s 1,000-mile trek across the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995. Reese Witherspoon stars as the emotionally damaged protagonist who embarks on the journey as a means to come to terms with her personal demons.
Wild begins mid-journey. Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) stands upon the precipice of a mountain and screams into the sky, presumably over one of her lost boots and a nasty toe injury, but it’s apparent that there is much more to the story. She’s clearly anguished, but why? What compelled her to take this particular path?
The actual journey in Wild is a lot less interesting than discovering what led up to it. In part, that’s because Cheryl is so woefully unprepared for what lies ahead. You get the distinct feeling that she had a fleeting thought that this might be a good idea, read some hiking manuals, packed her bags, and left. There was no preparation and no training. That’s not admirable – it’s stupid, but it piqued my curiosity. What tragedy is so great in someone’s life that they think hiking 1,000 miles is the solution? It’s a great setup for the movie.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Cheryl’s life started spiraling out of control after her mother’s untimely death. A sequence of events cost Cheryl her marriage, health and self-respect. She’s spiritually bereft, laden with guilt, and this is her pilgrimage.
Witherspoon is receiving early Oscar buzz, and rightfully so. She is perfectly cast because she doesn’t look like someone who could persevere under the physical demands of the hike. She’s not buff and ripped, and that makes her wholly believable as someone who rather impulsively decides to do this. A scene taking place in a hotel room demonstrates her naivety when she can’t even lift the backpack she has packed, and she’s supposed to carry this for three months.
She also delves into some dark territory we haven’t seen from her before. Cheryl is not a likable character. She’s done some awful things. Some of the flashbacks are shocking, given that it’s Witherspoon, but she is surprisingly good and embraces the role.
Laura Dern plays Cheryl’s mom, and her fleeting time on screen is put to good use. Despite some significant setbacks in her life, she clearly provided Cheryl with a warm and loving home, and did her best with their less than ideal circumstances. Her mom is the person Cheryl is aspiring to be.
The actual hiking scenes are rather uneventful. They depict the repetitive nature of Cheryl’s days-hiking, pitching a tent, eating and sleeping. Her initial awe at the vast landscape that surrounds her quickly devolves into an awareness of her solitude and loneliness. It’s that solitude that forces her to confront her issues. I’m kind of torn as to whether this is a resounding feminist act for Cheryl, or if it’s merely a form of self-flagellation. Initially she seems pretty hell-bent on punishing herself, but I think that her eventual path to enlightenment emerged from the experience.
Director Jean Marc-Vallée does a pretty remarkable job with the pacing of the film. He inserts the flashbacks into Cheryl’s stream of consciousness, so it really feels like we are privy to her innermost thoughts. Without the internal dialogue, this would be dreadfully boring story, but by the end of the movie we come to understand exactly how she ended up here. Her motives might have changed, but she got the end result she wanted. – Shannon