Based on a successful memoir by Cheryl Strayed, Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as the will-be author hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
As someone who’s had a life-altering hiking epiphany (albeit a very small one), I was worried that Wild would give too much credence to mysticism and enlightenment, and not enough to mere stubbornness, foot pain, and physical habit.
Wild gets it exactly right. Including the mundane mystic enlightenment that comes from being stuck with your own thoughts for days on end.
The First Step
R for sexual content, nudity, drug use, and language
DFF 37 (2014)
- 1001 Grams
- #SDFF37: The Denver Film Festival returns in 2014, and so does our coverage
- The Tribe
- The Imitation Game
- Wild Canaries
- Of Horses and Men
- Uncertain Terms
- An Honest Liar
- Lake Los Angeles
- Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter
- Two Days, One Night
- The Dinner
- Mr. Kaplan
- Peter Anthony: Director of The Man Who Saved the World
As Cheryl, Witherspoon is as chipper as ever, especially when she’s around fellow hikers. But director/editor Jean-Marc Vallée ( Dallas Buyers Club) and co-editor Martin Pensa flash back often to her wreck of a life — the one that sent her out here into reclusion. The flashbacks show a desperate unraveling — from addiction, from failed relationships, and from the loss of her mother.
Laura Dern is playing mothers now (she also plays the mother of the main character in Ramin Bahrani’s99 Homes). Here, she’s a free spirit who chose to settle down and raise her kids. It’s incredibly distracting that Reese Witherspoon plays a teenage version of her adult character (Dern was only 9 years old when Witherspoon was born). But their relationship feels genuine — as a teen Cheryl thought mom was lame for giving up on her dreams to raise children — as if!— but we see past the teenage point of view and understand what mom was saying.
We’re never sure what promise the 90-day hike holds for Cheryl. It gets her away from the many temptations to backslide, and it beats joining a convent. It also offers a chance to focus her energies on something uncomplicated and purely physical. But it’s also a whim, a capricious “can’t hurt” option inspired by a serendipitous bookstore find.
One of the few scenes that feels forced is the funny, lighthearted beginning of her hike. Cheryl buys all new equipment, throwing out heaps of plastic wrapping from her many new pieces of gear. She buys so much she literally can’t lift her pack. But she learns as she goes, and after two weeks she meets some seasoned pros who help her shed some unnecessary weight.
Two Storylines Diverged in a Wood
Because so much of the storytelling involves flashbacks, a film like this only works with really good editing. But once you get past “editing is necessary,” telling the story becomes more of an art than a science.
Nick Hornby wrote the screenplay, and he, Vallée, Pensa, and Witherspoon all seem really in tune with each other. The creative team always manages to find scenes during the hike that resonate and play off of scenes from earlier in Strayed’s life.
More importantly, the two timelines build at the same pace, though in opposite directions. The longer Cheryl stays on the trail, the healthier and more confident she becomes, the more psychologically whole she seems. Meanwhile, the more of her past we see, the more we understand how deeply her life has fallen apart, the more obvious her need for some sort of therapeutic purge.
It’s possible that this is what makes Wild such an engrossing, satisfying movie. If you add up the two timelines, you start with a relatively shallow Cheryl in both timelines (maybe that explains the silly packing scene). By the end you see a complex woman, buffeted by fate and choice, with all that experience coalescing into wisdom and strength.
Wild is an engrossing, convincing, and occasionally beautiful movie, and it may be Witherspoon’s best role yet.