In the opening scene of Wild Cheryl Strayed sits atop a mountain, checking out her ruined feet. She’s all alone, miles from civilization, and she accidentally knocks one of her hiking boots off the side of the mountain and watches, in horror, as it bounces down the rocky slope. Enraged, she throws the other boot after its sibling.
This is about as dangerous as the hiking gets in Wild, based on the memoir of Strayed’s journey on the Pacific Crest trail, which goes from Mexico to Canada. This isn’t a movie about a woman lost in nature, battling for survival. It’s about a woman taking a deeply interior journey set against some of the most stunning exteriors in America.
My first reaction to the synopsis of Wild was to do a barrel roll with my eyes. A white lady spends three months hiking to find herself - how cliche and boring. But, as is so often the case with my initial reaction to synopses, I was way off-base. See, there are two kinds of people who can go hiking for three months: people who have everything and people who have nothing. I didn’t realize that Strayed fit into that second group.
Cheryl Strayed is a deeply flawed woman, a woman who has thrown away her life and marriage by retreating into heroin and dozens upon dozens of cheap affairs and back alley fucks. She’s hit bottom and she has decided that the Pacific Crest Trail is going to be the gauntlet through which she must travel to find herself - which sounds kind of bullshitty (just get a job and fix your life!) but ends up taking on a profound meaning by the end of the film. Along the way she meets people and has small human interactions while diving into her own memories of her mother and her life, finding the places where she is broken and using the strength of the trail to mend them. When Cheryl begins her hike she's lugging the world's biggest backpack, but along the way she drops the load, literally losing her baggage as she goes - a metaphor elegantly executed onscreen.
Wild is a film about human grace, and about the extraordinary majesty of the world around us. What makes the film special is that while its physical dramas are small its emotional dramas are profound and moving, and explored like a good mystery - as Cheryl gets closer to the finish line of her incredible hike we get closer to understanding why she began. In the book that information is right up front, but Nick Hornby’s script reveals her relationship with her mother in bits and pieces, so that our journey is one of discovery about Cheryl herself.
Reese Witherspoon is clearly the center of the film - she’s on screen every single moment, except in slight flashbacks to Cheryl as a child - but Laura Dern supports her like Atlas supports the world. Dern plays Cheryl’s mother, and her performance is nuanced and heartbreaking. I won’t divulge the details of that story, but Dern is a perfect mixture of fragility and strength, the epitome of a hopeful, beleaguered single mother.
Witherspoon is excellent, although I do have one problem with her casting in general - she’s simply too old. Which isn’t to say that she looks bad - this isn’t about looks at all, as Witherspoon looks phenomenal - but rather about maturity. In real life Strayed was 26 years old when she set out on the Pacific Crest Trail, a woman too old to be fucking up the way she was, but not yet old enough that it was truly alarming. Witherspoon simply doesn’t have the aura of a mid-20s lost woman but rather comes across as someone in her 30s, a totally different context for the life experiences being examined.
Despite not quite having that mid-20s lost energy, Witherspoon is phenomenal. She’s a magnetizing presence at the center of the movie, which is good because she’s the whole movie, more or less. Her catharsis plays out in bits and pieces throughout the film, and it ends up being one of the most organic personal journeys I have ever seen in a movie.
All of that is set against the backdrop of some of the most beautiful locations in this country. Jean-Marc Vallee captures this rugged beauty in every single frame, turning the film into something of an ad for the Pacific Crest Trail. To look upon the landscapes, from high desert to mountain peaks to lush coniferous forests, is to be filled with the longing to get out into the world, to see these sights beyond the screen.
That, perhaps, is the final triumph of Wild - it makes you want to get out and experience the world for yourself. It’s inspirational in that way, and Strayed’s story is profoundly inspirational in that it’s about a woman who takes her life into her own hands and improves herself through willpower and determination. When Strayed gets to the end of her journey she has exactly two dimes to her name, but more importantly she has a new understanding of herself and what she wants from her life. Not everyone can hike the length of the Pacific Crest Trail, but everyone can get off their asses, get into the world and spend time with themselves.
Wild is a beautiful movie, both visually and emotionally. I wish it had been released earlier in the year, as it’s getting lost in the awards race right now; while I don’t know that it has a shot in that world I believe Wild is going to be a movie people revisit for years to come, a movie that will speak to people in ways no trophy can fully acknowledge.