The concept of a grueling physical ordeal acting as a journey toward some sort of spiritual transformation is a staple of storytelling, and its success depends on how well you get to know the character and what drives her. Wild, based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her pilgrimage along the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, doesn’t quite connect the intense and often brutal hike with the struggle inside Strayed’s soul, but it still manages to be mostly captivating and compelling thanks to an outstanding and brave performance from Reese Witherspoon.
In a now-standard gambit, director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) and screenwriter Nick Hornby (An Education) introduce us to Strayed at a low point, her feet raw and bleeding and one hiking book lost to a ravine. From there we move forward and backward in time, watching her begin her quest –which takes her from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Northwest – and also gleaning snippets of her past, which includes drug addiction, promiscuity, a broken marriage (to The Newsroom’s Thomas Sadoski), and a generally self-destructive bent. As the past is peeled back more, all roads lead to Strayed’s relationship with her free-spirited mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), a source of positive energy, honesty, and love that is an anchor from which Strayed eventually becomes unmoored.
The best parts of Wild are the details of Strayed’s rugged hike, which she undertakes with minimal preparation and maximum physical discomfort in the form of a monstrously heavy backpack that is almost a character in itself. Shot by Vallee with the same sort of handheld realism as much of Dallas Buyers Club, the rigors and trials of Strayed’s hike are gripping in their own right, from her struggle to just hoist the damn thing onto her straining back to her attempts at fashioning together a makeshift shoe after she loses the one we saw her throw off a cliff – in an impulsive yet wholly believable moment of frustration – in the beginning of the film.
Vallee and Witherspoon both work hard to make you feel every physical and mental sensation of Strayed’s journey, including her interactions with fellow hikers and random men she meets along the path. Those latter encounters, as you would suspect, are fraught with the possibility of violence, sexual or otherwise. Strayed’s fear and suspicion is almost too palpable to sit through in two separate encounters, one of which turns out to be quite harmless while the other almost ventures into seriously dangerous territory for our heroine. There are perils both human and non-human out there, especially for a young and attractive woman, which makes stretches of Strayed’s walk even more harrowing.
There are also moments where you can feel the serenity and awesomeness of nature itself, and it is perhaps in those spaces that Strayed might have a chance to reflect on her past and make decisions about her future. But the one thing that Wild never really does is make the connection between Strayed’s monumental hike and the haunted wreckage of her past clear. While the walk is populated by challenges to her body and soul, we never truly feel how those ordeals lead her to cleanse herself emotionally, physically and spiritually. That keeps Wild from being as powerful as it might have been – we don’t really get to feel Strayed’s transcendence in a way that is satisfying. It could be that the director didn’t want to hammer that home in too obvious a manner, but even a film as grounded as Wild could use a little more emotional punch at the end.
Even lacking that, however, the film is still so strong in many ways thanks to Witherspoon. She gives perhaps her best performance since her perfect turn in Election, and proves herself more than capable of portraying such a damaged and deeply complex character. Since Walk the Line, most of her more dramatic turns have either been in poorly received films (Rendition) or as a supporting player (Mud) so it’s refreshing to see her front and center here and carry nearly the entire movie on her own, especially in segments where Strayed is not very likable (kudos also to Dern for excellent work as the indefatigable but clearly careworn Bobbi).
For the acting along, the intimate way in which we follow Strayed along her hike and Vallee’s excellent eye for both the beauty and ugliness of nature and its impact on human beings in its midst, Wild is a fascinating trip – even if you don’t walk out contemplating the same kind of quest as the cure for whatever ails your own soul.
Wild is out in theaters now.