Before you label Wild a ‘Reese Witherspoon movie,’ you have to see it from start to end. You’d be surprise that it’s not your typical movie from her. It’s more.
The story begins in 1995 with Cheryl Strayed, a young twentysomething, about to start a hike down the Pacific Crest Trail. This comes right after her divorce from Paul, her husband of seven years. One of the many troubles in Cheryl’s life. Cheryl looks to hiking the trail as a chance to reshape her life and gain inner strength. But at first, you will think Cheryl doesn’t have what it takes to do this long hike. It’s an 1,100 mile journey and on top of it, Cheryl is struggling to simply put on her 40-pound backpack, never mind walk with it. And on uneven terrain that includes mountains? Can she do it? Even her best friend Aimee feels she can’t do it.
The hike starts with great difficulty. Walking with the heavy backpack, she has difficulties on the first day such as not even hiking ten miles, being without cooking fuel and being unable to set up a tent properly. The days get stronger over time but it’s still very gradual as the second day she’s made aware of the type of wild animals she would have to deal with.
Over time she would have to find help. On the third day, she asks a farmer for help. He offers to take her to her house but she’s nervous about it, especially since she sees a gun in his car. She later learns he’s a married man and the couple offer her to stay overnight. Over time she meets other people that offer her help from a father and his teenage son to full families to people at various camping goods stores and retailers to hippies in a local California town who pay tribute to Jerry Garcia upon his recent death at the time to three college guys out having a fun hike together to even hikers that also plan to do the trail but eventually fail. Not all were helpful. One was a journalist for a magazine who just took pictures of her and interviewed her. Another was a group of snowboarders on a mountain top who just leave her. Another was a pair of threatening-looking men she met at a well only to be encountered by the bowhunter later looking like he would want to do something harmful to her. Fortunately it doesn’t happen as his colleague tells him to return.
However it’s the alone times of the hike that are the most crucial. In between the times she signs a name on the hike log that includes using a quote or line of poetry from a famous poet, Cheryl is all alone and has the moments of her past come back to her. Moments like a childhood with an abusive father her mother leaves taking her younger brother and her at age 6, going through high school while her mother was returning to complete her graduation, marrying Paul a successful restaurant owner while young, learning her mother has cancer and her dying sooner than expected, having her mother’s cherished horse put down, leaving Paul and hitting the inner city of Portland where she adopts a drug habit and even has an abortion. Those are the memories Cheryl is trying to wrestle with in her hike. Her cheap therapy hasn’t helped but maybe this hike will.
The thing with this film is that it’s not just to show the trip Cheryl took but also the flashbacks to the moments of her life that both trouble her and define her. We don’t just see the bad memories she’s dealing with but we feel them too. We may first just see Cheryl right after she finished her divorce at the beginning but as the trip progresses, we start feeling her situation. We learn of the bond she had with her mother and why her death hurt her terribly. We learn of how her marriage to Paul fell apart. We learn of her drug abuse. We learn of her abusive father she hasn’t seen since she was a small girl. We learn of the cheap therapy she tried at first but didn’t work. We learn of her no-so-close relationship with her brother. Over time, we see why Cheryl wants to use this trip to heal herself and it comes to appear as the right thing for her to do.
The film gives a good sense of inner strength Cheryl acquires over time with the hike. At first Cheryl appears to be a completely amateur camper who can’t get her backpack on right, can’t put up a tent well and can’t cook a proper dinner outdoors. You think she doesn’t have a chance in completing it. You’d think even more so when she comes across threatening creatures like rattlesnakes and cougars along the way. You’d also think that way in seeing she can’t even cover ten miles a day during the beginning of her trip. Sometimes you think she might become a victim of crime as there would be some threatening people she’d encounter, especially that bowhunter. Nevertheless she gets stronger with each and every mile.
However the film also succeeds in conveying the popular saying ‘the journey is the destination.’ It shows Cheryl being enriched by her experience while mentally fighting her troubles of the past. That’s not just acquired from her hiking but also from the people she meets. It’s people like the farmer who first appears threatening but becomes helpful along with his wife, like the hippies she encounters upon the death of Jerry Garcia, like the men at the store who help her reduce her packing, like the various hikers she comes across, and people like the grandson who sings ‘Red River Valley.’ There are many people that enrich her experience. Even those that seem insignificant like that journalist on the road or the three young college boys hiking together and goofing off appear to give some extra richness to her experience. Even the quotes from various authors and poets Cheryl puts in the logbooks add to the richness of the journey.
Another key aspect the film focuses on is people’s attitudes, especially in dealing with the hardships of life. We see Cheryl as she went through a self-destructive path after her mother died and needed a way out. She took the Trail in hopes that it would help her recover. We also see her mother who had also been through hardships of her own but still holds her head high. That scene where she says she doesn’t regret marrying Ronald because she had her and Leif. You think people that are constantly positive are naive and foolish but she shows strength in positive thinking. Even seeing her on her deathbed laughing how she finally gets a ‘room with a view,’ it takes a special kind of person to hold their head high during difficult times. I think it was because of her mother’s positive attitude that Cheryl knew she couldn’t be a victim anymore and needed to heal herself. That’s why she took that hike. Interesting how there are some people like Bobbi who just have that ability to stay strong in hard times and there are people like Cheryl who need to acquire that inner strength.
Without a doubt, the film belonged to Reese Witherspoon. This is not the typical Reese Witherspoon movie. This is Reese playing someone completely different from roles she’s played before in the past and it’s a role with immense depth. Even playing Cheryl at various ages in the film. She comes out shining. Even though this appears to be a one-person film, it’s Laura Dern who does an excellent job as Bobbi and even steals the film at times. She makes being positive in difficult times look smart and strong instead of naive and foolish. Thomas Sadoski did good playing Paul but his role could have been developed more as could have the role of her brother Leif played by Keene McRae and the role of best friend Aimee played by Gaby Hoffman. The various supporting performances were also excellent and added to the film. Even the briefest of performances.
Jean-Marc Vallee does it again. He really made a name for himself last year with the Dallas Buyers Club and he adds to his reputation here. He succeeds in making it the personal story of Cheryl’s it’s supposed to be while adding to the environment of the story. Nick Hornby did a very good job of writing out the story from Cheryl’s memoirs keeping in the key parts of her hike and of her life. The film made a wise choice in keeping the story mostly score-free and let the sounds of the wild and even the chill of silence add to the story. That scene of the bowhunter appearing to either want to rape or murder Cheryl wouldn’t have worked as well with a score. The inclusion of the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘El Condor Pasa‘ is an excellent addition. It’s almost like it becomes Cheryl’s own personal anthem. Also noteworthy are the contributions by Strayed herself where she’s the associate producer and even plays a woman in a truck in the film. Her daughter Bobbi Lindstrom even plays Cheryl as a child.
Wild is a bit of a melodrama but it’s not the least bit boring. It’s a very deep, very enriching story of one woman using a hike to fight her inner troubles. We not only witness her gain inner strength from it, we experience it.