The title of Wild is highly ironic. The movie’s story follows a woman who hikes a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexico/California border to the Oregon/Washington one, as a way of finding herself. There’s not really much “wild” at all about embarking on such a hike. True, it’s a long, arduous journey, but it’s about as safe of one that you can take in the modern world. The American frontier is all but dead. The Pacific Crest Trail is a a federally protected area, with numerous official rest stops and regulated camping spots along its path. Going down the Trail is less an adventure than it is a way to “get away from” the world, which is the main character of Wild‘s explicitly-stated reason for taking it. And this itself is a comfort of the first world — being able to drop out of normal life for a while.
Which isn’t to say that Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has it easy. In flashbacks interspersed throughout her long hike, we see how she lost her mother to cancer, became addicted to drugs, and broke her marriage, all at a young age. The Trail is her way to reset, to wean herself of her addictions and prepare for whatever’s going to come next in her life. Fair enough. Hiking a thousand miles comes across as a completely arbitrary manner of self-actualization, but the film is based on the real-life Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, so one can’t quibble too much with that detail. Still, the journey the fictional Cheryl takes hits many drudgingly familiar beats, expressed with a cringeworthy lack of grace.
In one scene, a rest stop proprietor helps Cheryl unload all the things she doesn’t need from her hefty backpack. The words, “get rid of what’s weighing you down” are spoken. Get it? Get it? At various logbooks stationed at mile markers, Strayed leaves quotes from famous authors that she attributes both to them and herself, which is one of the most laughably faux-Kerouac things to pop up in a film since Into the Wild. It shores up the movie’s conviction that, somehow, this journey does in fact make sense, when in fact it may just be a determined attempt on the part of a screenwriter to make one woman’s recollections of real life, which is messy, into a coherent narrative.
Every movie based on a true story does this, of course. The trick is to make sure the seams of adaptational contrivance don’t come across in the process. They’re all over the place in Wild, whose flashback structure tries to conceal the fact that not much on Cheryl’s journey really makes sense as a way of healing her pain. Were the film’s events to be presented chronologically, it’d be plainly evident. Although that might actually have been a wiser choice, a way to make Cheryl’s isolation on the trail more acutely felt. Flashbacks of her with family and friends back home dampen that effect.
Or perhaps the most promising direction would have been to simply make a film about a woman alone, because Wild is at its best when that’s its focus. The nature cinematography is often gorgeous, and Witherspoon makes dogged, haggard determination feel raw and real. Though she sheds her makeup for the present-day scenes, the flashbacks are where she’s giving a performance that feels more Oscar-waving, filled as they are with cancer-and-drug-fueled grief. But when she has to stare over a mountain vista and ponder what’s brought her there, she’s untouchable. And specific sequences of Cheryl interacting with men on the trail who may or may not pose a danger to her are an arresting way to make men and women alike feel the casual danger of the lone female in a “male” environment.
Wild is competent on all levels, notable mainly for its photography, Witherspoon, severely abusing “El Condor Pasa (If I Could),” and perpetuating this year’s oddly specific phenomenon of movies using Laura Dern in a supporting role as a mother whose last name starts with “L.” You’ll be hearing about it for months because of Witherspoon’s Oscar buzz, but it’s not clear if we’ll hear about it much more after that business is settled.
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