Starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gaby Hoffman, Michael Huisman and Thomas Sadoski
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
From Fox Searchlight
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
When I was about 13 years old I went on a weekend backpacking trip with the Boy Scouts. We were given a checklist of things to pack before we went. The list included a tent, a sleeping bag, what seemed like a Sears rack full of clean socks, and then about 50 other items ranging from canteen and compass to pocket knife and mess kit. Fill your clothes dryer with the contents of your silverware drawer, that’s what we sounded like rambling through the forest.
By the first mile, we learned why it was wise to shift your pack’s weight from the shoulder straps to the hip belt. By the third mile, we learned why we were supposed to bring so many socks. And later, on somewhere between the eighth and 13th mile, we learned that none of us much cared for backpacking. Or Boy Scouts. Or the outdoors.
It is with this vivid memory rocketing out of my past that I watched Wild in painful agony. It begins with a woman pausing during a grueling hike to inspect her feet. As she pulls at bloody blisters and chipping nails on her toes, one of her hiking boots tumbles down the mountain in ballet-like pirouette of horror. My feet screamed at this sight, as will yours.
Wild, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from a hit nonfiction book by Cheryl Strayed, stars Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, a grieving, depressed daughter who has never quite overcome the death of her beloved mother. After a string of awful episodes, and bouts with heroin, Cheryl puts down all the skin she has on one game — hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600-mile beast of a trail that begins in Southern California and extends upward through Oregon and Washington.
The film, which is beautifully and meticulously photographed, plays like a road movie with Strayed — an ominous last name for a hiker — donning her overloaded pack and hitting the trail in California’s dusty deserts. She meets some curious people, steps around a few rattlers, eats her food raw because she packed the wrong cooking fuel, and begins to question her sanity for undertaking a challenge so terrifyingly massive.
But Wild is more than just a road trip as Witherspoon’s haunting whispers and internal monologue slowly unravel who and what Strayed is as she embarks on her existential adventure of self-discovery. Cheryl Strayed is bright, passionate, fiercely honest and also wounded and hurt. She is not the kind of person who should be off by herself for months at a time. Yet the trail calls to her, and begs her to push forward.
Vallée, so instrumental in crafting false hope and unfavorable odds in Dallas Buyer’s Club, follows up that mesmerizing character study with another, this one more personal and reflective. His star, Witherspoon, is electrifying as she bares her soul (and body) to the PCT and its other lost children. Some of the ideas behind Wild are kind of new-agey and self-helpish. In a certain light you might be inclined to cite Eat Pray Love. I never got that vibe from Wild, though. It feels more authentic and pure, mostly because the trail is self-inflicted torture, not some vapid food vacation.
The movie slowly unspools flashbacks of the mother (Laura Dern), an ex-husband, Cheryl’s brother and it handles the issues responsibly, but also with a hefty dose of practicality. It could have beat us over the head about Cheryl’s choices, but Cheryl doesn’t let it become that as she reasons her way through her problems. In one passage she questions her drug use: “If heroin brought me here, and here is so beautiful, then maybe the heroin wasn’t so bad,” she says gazes out over golden fields and towering snow-dusted peaks. If the trail provides anything to her, it’s perspective.
Amid all the reflection and soul searching, Wild is still, at its core, a hiking movie. The locations are gorgeous and varied, from deserts to mountain meadows to snowy valleys. And the details are fascinating, like how hikers mail themselves their own supplies to be picked up at various checkpoints along the way. Or how packs are trimmed of extra weight, even down to the ounce. Or how water from muddy hoofprints is purified. And if you’re wondering how safe a female hiker is alone out in the wild, the movie has an answer for that, too.
If you’re like me, you’ll wish you had the time, motivation, stamina and fortitude to do what Cheryl Strayed does. There’s no doubt it would be a life-changing hike. As for me, I’ll always have the Boy Scouts, and now Wild.