Most everyone I’ve encountered in Montana understands without needing to be told that to walk alone in the wilderness is a sacred, transformative act. That might even be why you live here; your job and family make you crazy but you can always see sanity sprawled out ahead on the mountain skyline whispering your name. But it’s dangerous, too. Who knows how the woods will change you? When you come out the other side, will you recognize yourself? Wild stands on that intersection between a ruined life and the thorny, winding road to redemption.
The film stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, the real life author of the memoir of the same name, adapted for the screen by novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyer’s Club). Cheryl Strayed’s influence buzzes around these parts in unexpected ways. I first came across her writing at an online literary magazine called The Rumpus, curated by Stephen Elliot, where for a few years she wrote an anonymous advice column called “Dear Sugar.” I found her advice filled with wisdom, humor and warmth. She always called the reader “Sweet Pea,” and the advice seemed predicated on a life’s worth of experience. Her ex-husband in the film (known in the movie as “Paul”) is a real guy, Marco Littig, who co-owns Bernice’s Bakery in Missoula. Strayed lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and a couple of kids. These are your friends and neighbors, and it makes the story feel close.
As for the movie: We meet Cheryl just as she’s about to set out alone on the 1,000-mile hike up the west coast known as the Pacific Crest Trail. She thinks back to everything that’s gone wrong and all the ways this hike will help. Through skillfully blended-in flashbacks, we learn that she’s lost her mother (Laura Dern) to cancer, that her relationship with Paul has fallen apart due to her drug use and promiscuity—in short, the trip is a metaphorical-made-very-real attempt at “walking back to being the woman her mother wanted her to be.” I think that makes sense to a Montanan. If you haven’t ever found yourself walking on blistered feet down a trail that never ends, then the movie has more work to do on you. You can almost see the thought bubbles fizzing and cracking around her head. On the trail, you get a song on the brain for 20 miles and there’s nothing to be done. Things you’ve said that you wish you could take back instead echo interminably. You spend a lot of time in pain, regret and longing. But something happens along the trail once you’re too exhausted to keep searching for it. You start to heal.
In some ways, this is just a fun picture for backpacking nerds. She’s setting up her tent and stove for the first time on the trail and it’s a clumsy effort. What an amateur, right? She didn’t do a trial run in her living room first? I like when she’s hanging out at one of the checkpoints and a man helps her lighten her pack. Surely she doesn’t need those heavy binoculars and all 12 condoms, but it’s a real sex-positive, go feminism moment when she saves one of them. It’s also some pretty heavy-handed foreshadowing that Cheryl is probably going to get laid later, and hey, she earned it.
It’s still a rare thing in film to see a woman in such an actionable position. A lot of men give her these sideways looks, like, “You sure you want to do this? It’s dangerous out there.” If they’re talking about wild animals, sure, but really, is the strength of a man so much greater than that of a lady when you’ve got a 12-foot grizzly bearing down on you? It’s a sad truth that Cheryl’s biggest problem is other men, and yeah, a few sketchy characters show up. But women have just as much a right to hurl themselves into danger as men, don’t they? Cheryl knows it’s dangerous and that doesn’t stop her.
Wild hits all the right notes of Strayed’s memoir. It’s an inspiring, sometimes sad and beautifully shot film that with its limited scope and substance falls a little short of anything spectacular. There’s not much plot to speak of, which isn’t always a deal breaker, but at a nearly two-hour running time, like Cheryl’s hike, the film starts to feel tedious and without point. Director Vallée shows us action as best he can that essentially amounts to a lady walking down a path with a lot on her mind. As for Witherspoon’s performance and dreams of Oscar—it’s a solid performance and I think she’s got a fighting chance. Tears and bruises go a long way.
Wild continues at Carmike 12.