Wild places at its very centre a complex story about a woman trying to overcome the many pitfalls of her life by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail of northwestern United States alone. It doesn’t shy away from harmful details, like her sex and heroin addictions, and grandly steers clear of a predictable ending in which a lesser movie might have otherwise indulged. No, Wild is not about the woman’s journey or her past, but about her, in the now, struggling to make it over the next ridge. Her past and future simply provide perspective.
The movie is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose recent Dallas Buyers Club (2014) was also about the harrowing account of an individual’s climb up the dogged steps of society. In that film we followed Ron Woodroof as he fought the FDA for cheap, approved drugs. In this film Cheryl Strayed has already had her fight with third parties; her fight now is with herself, and Reese Witherspoon delivers a brave, thoughtful performance, one that juggles intense emotions with the agility of a trapeze artist. Watching her is like enjoying a glass of port with a friend.
She plays Cheryl, who has lived a life of debauchery. In flashback, we see her relationship with her mother Barbara (Laura Dern), who had to suffer an abusive drunk for a husband (as many women do) and adored horse-riding. A single parent, she boldly masked her pain by constantly laughing and dancing (possibly a result of debauchery herself) and returning to school at the ripe age of motherhood to feel hip and relevant again. Then she was diagnosed with a terminal illness, was given a year to live and died after a month.
Cheryl’s husband, played by Thomas Sadoski, loved his wife dearly but drew the line at adultery and drugs (as many men would). He caught her one night in the decrepit apartment of a druggy, shooting up and fornicating, and delivered the ultimatum. Cheryl, lost in her vices, chose divorce. But the couple was not so sour as to be filled with vengeance — in a touching scene they get matching tattoos and candidly discuss Cheryl’s infidelity, much to the bemusement of the tattooist.
The hike presents for Cheryl a healing tonic, one usually prescribed by a psychiatrist or a witch doctor. She needs this time alone to collect her thoughts and ponder her place in this life, which every day seems to want to devour her for her past transgressions. It might seem like a foolhardy endeavour — to hike a trail that spans the height of the United States, alone — but in Cheryl’s case it is utterly, profoundly logical.
I liked the way she tells a courteous driver she’s hiked before, then later proves very quickly that she hasn’t — she struggles getting her tent up and absentmindedly finishes all her rations in a few days. She looks out into the wilderness and wonders if she should give up. On the eve of the seventh day she encounters a farmer, who takes her back to his house for a shower and a warm meal. The next morning he advises her to throw in the towel.
She meets more people along the way: Fellow hikers, hiking enthusiasts, onlookers. She is invited up to a hikers’ cabin in the woods and learns helpful tips from her superiors. A telling exchange of Cheryl’s mindset: She has brought along, in her mammoth backpack, a box of twelve condoms. What was she hoping would unravel in the middle of the forest?
In another movie the people Cheryl meets would have provided her with valuable insights to her spiritual quest. I can imagine her encountering a bickering couple and intently listening as they provide her with counsel, soothing her with their problems so she’d feel better about how her own marriage turned out. But not here. The screenplay by Nick Hornby removes plot-driven dialogue from everyone but Cheryl, so that she’s left alone to discover her truths for herself. There is an added bonus to this: The people she meets seem real, not conjured by the plot to teach us a thing or two about the values of life.
There is very little sentiment in Wild, just as there is very little sentiment in Cheryl’s life. She blames herself for the death of her mother and her failed marriage. She is not a nice person, but to succeed at this transformation she has to play nice. She has to grow, mentally and physically. Vallée has carved out here a truly deep movie about a deep woman, told straight, without frills or distractions. In an age of true stories being brought to the Hollywood screen, Wild is up there with the best.
Best Moment | There’s no particular Best Moment.
Worst Moment | The farmer who uses perverted stares and suggestive words to seem like a rapist but is actually just a jolly fellow who loves his candy. In the real world he would’ve admitted from the start: Don’t worry, I’m not here to rape you.