Novice hiker hits the road to redemption in ‘Wild’
It may be that the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. But the years of psychological turmoil leading up to that step prove at least as compelling as the journey itself in Wild, the screen adaptation of the bestselling memoir by Cheryl Strayed about one novice hiker’s quest for redemption on the Pacific Crest Trail. While the man-(or in this case, woman)-versus-wilderness aspect of the story provides visual engagement, it’s the backstory— more than the stunning landscape—that gives the movie its scope and resonance.
Scripted by novelist-screenwriter Nick Hornby (About A Boy, High Fidelity) from Strayed’s non-fiction book, the film is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose last film was another true American story, Dallas Buyers Club. For Wild, he and Hornby wisely juxtapose Strayed’s past—events leading up to her momentous decision to hike the PCT alone—with her adventures on the trail. The past, with all of its joys, sorrows and regrets, is always alive in Strayed’s psyche in the present, and as Vallée glides seamlessly between the two, the larger story takes shape.
We first meet the film’s Cheryl (the inexhaustible Reese Witherspoon) at a grueling, pivotal moment on the trail, losing her hiking shoes and literally shrieking at the wilderness. Then we flash back a few weeks to see Cheryl checking in to a cheap motel in the Mojave Desert the day before her journey begins. (The woman in the truck who’s given her a lift to the motel and wishes her luck is a cameo by the real-life Strayed.)
Things go wrong from the start for Cheryl. Her backpack is enormous (other hikers she meets call it “the monster”), so heavy and unwieldy that she can barely stand up under it. On the first day, she’s so beat she has to pitch her tent only five miles in. Discovering she’s bought the wrong fuel for her portable cookstove, she has nothing to eat but cold mush and trail mix, supplies of which quickly run out, while her too-tight shoes steadily make mush of her toes.
What on earth is such a newbie doing on the PCT? We soon find out in fond, fleeting scenes of Cheryl and her beloved mother, Bobbi (played with disarming warmth and humor by Laura Dern). In these flashbacks, Cheryl chides her mom for her relentlessly cheerful attitude, even though “we have nothing,” and for raising a daughter with more “sophisticated” taste than she has. But Bobbi’s courage in taking Cheryl and her brother away from their abusive, alcoholic father, and going back to high school herself inspires Cheryl.
So when Bobbi is diagnosed with a fatal disease, and succumbs in a month, Cheryl is devastated. Grieving sends her life into a downward spiral of numbing drugs, mindless sex and despair, breaking up her seven-year marriage to sympathetic Paul (Thomas Sadoski), who just can’t cope any more. On a random whim, she picks up a guidebook about the PCT in a drugstore and gets the crazy idea to purge her mind, body, soul, and spirit of the evils infecting them by attempting a solo hike of 1,000 miles of the trail from Southern California to Oregon.
On the road, she has the expected close encounters with snow, rapids, wildlife, and potentially creepy guys, yet she perseveres. At various PCT stations along the way, she leaves quotes by Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost in the guest books. (Adrienne Rich’s famous line, “denying her wounds came from the same source as her power,” sort of becomes Cheryl’s mantra.)
Vallée’s storytelling isn’t always as clear as it should be. The issue of Cheryl’s pregnancy is raised in a couple of flashbacks, then dropped with no resolution. There’s not really any backstory on Paul, or what his role was in Cheryl’s life during the dark period of Bobbi’s illness. But the film works best as a portrait of this mother-daughter bond, and as an ode to finding the courage to come back to life. As Cheryl puts it, at the end of her journey, “It took me years to become the woman my mother raised.”
WILD *** (out of four)
With Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Written by Nick Hornby. From the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 115 minutes.