A life-affirming tale of finding yourself amidst nature, based on a best-selling memoir, Wild follows Cheryl Strayed, an aspiring writer whose life falls apart upon the death of her mother.
Having sought refuge in sex and drugs, Cheryl decides to repair her life by walking the 1,200 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the US-Mexican border, through California, Oregon, and Washington, all the way up to Canada.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée has an attraction to headstrong characters, as does The Academy, as evidenced by last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, and Reese Witherspoon is a star in need of a comeback.
Witherspoon’s performance is less showy, however, as is the role: former Cheryl may have been a wild child but the present incarnation is quiet, humble, and full of resolve if not yet wisdom, though both contain a repeated mantra of “Fuck you”, hers bellowed in anguish from a mountaintop.
Wild is seen entirely through her eyes, mapping her trek across scrubland, over rocky plateaus, through evergreen forests, against the trials of her past. A shot of her tent, illuminated and alone on an open plain, reminds us of her isolation.
Her only contact is with Paul (The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadowski), her (mostly) understanding ex, who sends her letters at key mile markers, and the strangers she encounters along the way, from a gruff but well-meaning farmer to a couple of creepy hunters, though the ghost/memory of her relentlessly upbeat mom Bobbi (Laura Dern) is a constant companion.
The film bears, unsurprisingly, a strong resemblance to 2007’s Into The Wild, though Cheryl is driven into the wilderness by life experiences, instead of necessarily in search of them.
Nick Hornby’s script, meanwhile, has an appropriately literary feel to it, not just in Cheryl’s ethereal voiceover/internal monologue, which wanders from the lyrics of “El Condor Pasa” to complaints about her too-tight boots, or in the quotes she leaves at way stations, but in its freewheeling, non-linear narrative.
Striking a balance between gritty and poetic without one ever short-changing the other; full of bloodied feet and dark nights of the soul, though never gratuitous or predictable, the film keeps on moving till its final moment of transcendence.
The notion of an escape from civilization, the virtues of being alone with ones thoughts, goes back to Emerson and Thoreau (at least in American culture), but Wild proves it’s still possible to do it right.