Review: “Wild” Is A Journey Of Acceptance Not Redemption
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Screenwriter: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed (memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”)
Principal Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Keene McRae, and Michiel Huisman
When I graduated high school a good friend of mine decided the best way to celebrate was to walk around Scotland for about a month. When he came home, over the next few years or so, he decided that long term hiking was a thing that he really enjoyed. Over the years he’s walked the Appalachian Trail (Maine to Georgia), the Pacific Crest Trail (Mexico to Canada), and the Continental Divide Trail (Montana to New Mexico). So when I heard about Wild I was curious for a different reason than most people. I knew a good deal about what this friend went through when he did the trail and how you go about completing it, so I wanted to see if this telling had any truth to it.
Wild is a well paced and wonderfully acted account of what happens when someone with zero experience decides to attempt one of the harder hikes in America.
Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) has been in a downward spiral since her Mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern) passed away recently. Cheryl didn’t have a relationship with her father anymore and she didn’t feel like she had anyone to fall back on. She gets married but she serial cheats on her husband, and falls into a really horrible heroin addiction. While shopping after hitting rock bottom Cheryl sees a brochure for the Pacific Crest trail and decides that it’s time to walk herself back to the woman her mother thought she was. She ventures off to the trail with no experience as she tries to move on from grief, depression, and addiction.
The movie takes place over the 90+ days it took Cheryl to walk (almost) all of the Pacific Crest trail and is based off of the memoirs that she took along the way. Cheryl, the real Cheryl, decided to walk the trail by herself and didn’t stay with anyone that she met along the way, and the movie decided to be faithful to that. A large portion of the movie is Reese walking alone, along with a good amount of flashbacks to her life before the trail, and how she came to hit rock bottom. It means that a good portion of the dialogue is Cheryl talking to herself as she tries to make her way through her issues. There aren’t any major dramatic scenes where she needs to outrun a bear or anything like that. This is a movie that is about grief and moving on more than action or adventure.
Witherspoon does a good job of portraying Cheryl, even if she is a little hard to believe as someone who could actually walk the crest trail. She looks like she weighs all of hundred pounds, and her giant backpack dwarfs her. The movie opens with Witherspoon collapsing on top of a mountain, removing her boots to reveal bloody socks, and pulling off her large toenail. It’s the most brutal thing that we see throughout the movie, and is hard to watch, but Witherspoon does a very good job of showing that kind of pain. When she loses one of her boots down the mountain she lets out a scream of someone that is just so done with everything and the slight madness that comes from being alone for so long.
The editing and directing are just lovely. Director Jean-Marc Vallee manages to capture the changing scenery and beauty of the trail as Cheryl makes her way through vast deserts, empty fields, and snow capped mountains. Between Vallee and Witherspoon’s performance the movie really shines. This isn’t a story about redemption as so many others have pointed out. Cheryl doesn’t need to be redeemed for what she has done so much as she needs to grow up and accept that there are certain things we can’t control. There are times when family members die suddenly without reason and we do terrible things. The thing that adults need to do, as Cheryl comes to realize, is move on and not let little things destroy your entire world. The flashbacks are so perfectly matched with what Cheryl is going through at that moment on the trail, and it keeps the pacing and story moving along. This is a movie where not much happens, but it doesn’t feel dull because you become invested almost right away. We want Cheryl to put one foot in front of the other as much as she wants to continue to do so.
As I said this is mostly a one woman show but there is, some great backup work being by mostly, Laura Dern as Cheryl’s late mother in flashbacks. She is the ghost that follows Cheryl up the entire trail, and is a constant memory to Cheryl about why she is doing this. Dern does a great job of making Bobbi someone that the audience immediately likes so that her death means something to us as it means so much to Cheryl. Cheryl’s ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) makes a few scenes and he’s immediately sympathetic, along with Cheryl’s younger brother Leif (Keene McRae), but they are both there are outliers more than Bobbi. Cheryl was very close to her mother and it was her death that shatters Cheryl to the point of hopelessness. Paul was a victim of Cheryl’s downward spiral and she distances herself from Leif.
There were certain things I didn’t like but I have a feeling they are things that other people won’t notice. There is a small montage moment at the beginning of the movie where Cheryl gathers all of her things so that she can head out onto the trail, and I spent that entire montage wanting to flail in my seat and yell about how that isn’t how you do things. It made sense later on because she didn’t know what she was doing, but it bothered me for some reason. As I said, the believability of someone like Witherspoon being able to walk the trail can be kind of disjointing, but when it comes to the dramatic parts she more than makes up for it. I believe the film tries to show how hard the trail really is, but it is more focused on Cheryl’s state of being and sometimes makes it look a little too easy. What Cheryl did, walking the trail with no experience, is a dangerous thing to do and it could have easily ended the wrong way. Please, if you decide to attempt the trail, plan with someone who knows what they are doing beforehand.
Wild is an engaging story of a woman that decides to walk herself through grief, addiction, and depression, only to emerge a better person at the end. There are only a few stumbles along the way but, like Cheryl on the trail, the paths worth taking are never easy and Wild is a ride worth taking.