The real-life story of Cheryl Strayed and her 1,100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is the sort of subject I could easily see being destined for simplistic Hollywood schlock. There are so many obvious avenues a studio could follow to wring all the humanity out of this tale, to exploit every ‘inspirational’ moment or personal triumph for maximum emotional manipulation, and to turn Cheryl and her story into a symbol or stereotype rather than a genuine human journey. Indeed, the most impressive thing about the film Jean-Marc Vallée and Reese Witherspoon have made is that it takes none of those easy paths. Wild is an insightful, deeply felt chronicle of a complex protagonist on a compelling, multifaceted journey, a modest and dignified film about overcoming grief, guilt, and other internal barriers. The film is emotionally rich, and absolutely inspirational, but it comes by these sensations honestly, only occasionally overplaying the story’s strong dramatic core, and always approaching the material with sensitivity and intelligence. As stories like Strayed’s go, I cannot imagine a more effective cinematic rendering than this.
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The major challenge of a film like Wild lies in illustrating what is largely an internalized journey. Sure, Cheryl may be walking 1,100 miles, across harsh terrains and lonely tundra, but that alone isn’t what makes her story fantastic or uplifting. It’s what drives Cheryl that makes her adventure identifiable on a basic human level, and her trek is precipitated, and haunted, by some all-too-relatable demons. Strayed lost her mother, whom she was very close to, when she was only 22, and turned to reckless sex and drug abuse as a result of the emotional fallout, eventually resulting in the disintegration of her first marriage. By the time Cheryl’s long desert hike begins, her life has effectively fallen apart, as has any concrete sense of self. Her journey is archetypal – a long, physically arduous expedition symbolizing the pursuit of self-actualization – but when rendered well, that’s exactly what makes her story worth telling. Few of us can claim to have done something as extraordinary as hike that many miles, to commit so fully to something so difficult, but that quest to redefine oneself after major personal upheaval? That is universally meaningful, and in relating the specifics of Cheryl’s story with such a deft, measured hand, the film manages to strike at some true human profundity.
Vallée does tremendous work illustrating the physical highs and lows of Cheryl’s journey; with lush, sun-kissed imagery and quietly sensual handheld photography, the film looks spectacular, and isn’t afraid to linger on the particulars of such an arduous trek. We are immersed in the demanding realities of hiking so far, in the little intricacies of what one packs and how one eats, or in broader challenges like isolation, dehydration, and navigation. Without ever overplaying its hand, Wild is a gently experiential portrait of Cheryl’s long natural excursion, and that alone makes the film utterly unique from anything else I have seen all year.
What makes Wild truly special, though, is how beautifully it evokes the internal element of Cheryl’s expedition. The film starts at the very beginning of her hike, and concludes almost exactly at the moment she finishes, but in between, the film flashes throughout moments from Cheryl’s past, in tandem with how she experiences memory and interior reflection during the hike. The film is wonderfully fluid and lyrical in how it presents the ‘flashback’ material, often presenting us with fleeting glimpses of significant moments, entirely out of context, to illustrate where Cheryl’s mind is at any given moment. By the end, we understand fully the compounding personal challenges that send Cheryl off to the Pacific Crest Trail, but the film has no adherence to chronology. It is about emotional truths and the scattered timelines of personal reflection, and every flashback is as much about revealing Cheryl’s thoughts, fears, and baggage as it is about doling out exposition. There is some really powerful editing at work here, and I absolutely love the film’s overall construction. As vast and harrowing as it is on the literal, exterior level, it is every bit as rich and impactful in portraying an individual’s journey to find inner-peace.
And yes…as someone who lost a beloved parent, at almost exactly the exact same age Cheryl was when she lost her mother, and who intimately knows what it feels like to have every part of oneself redefined in the aftermath, Wild speaks to me. It feels authentic, from top to bottom, which is the sort of intangible praise I can report better than I can explain. There are two primary things that struck me here, though, in terms of making this story feel genuine, and the first is how Cheryl’s mother is portrayed more as a subject of memory than as an actual human being. As the mother, Laura Dern isn’t really playing a character here; there is no complexity to her, and neither are there any major shadings. She is sort of perfect, an image of strength and wisdom who is as inspirational as she impalpable, and I think that speaks to the way a lost loved one becomes iconographic in our memory, their imperfections gradually sanded away by grief. Second, I was moved by how the film hones in on guilt and self-laceration as extensions of mourning. The whole film is, in essence, about the manner in which loss can make one tear oneself and one’s identity apart, and the ways Vallée, Witherspoon, and screenwriter Nick Hornby interpret Strayed’s real-life reflections feels incredibly insightful and empathetic. “I’m gonna walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,” Cheryl says at one point in the film; reverse the gendered words, and I have said that sentence to myself more than once since my father passed. I doubt I’m the only one.
Witherspoon is truly the key figure here, going the distance with a demanding performance that fuels and colors the whole of the film. She has to play Strayed at a variety of ages, across a wide swath of periods and experiences, and in modes both isolated and interpersonal. She excels at every single one, quickly identifying the heart and personality of this person before diving deep to reveal further and further layers of Cheryl’s character. Her work is entertaining, gripping, and moving every step of the way, and even when the writing tip-toes into overbearing, on-the-nose territory, Witherspoon reigns things back into honest territory with remarkable ease. I have always enjoyed Witherspoon’s acting, but her work here is, frankly, a revelation, the kind of commanding, all-encompassing performance that can turn an actor into a legend. Especially in such a thin year for actresses in leading roles, it would be absurd for anyone else to win the Oscar.
That marks two years in a row now that Jean-Marc Vallée has gotten career-best work out of a well-established talent, between this and Dallas Buyers Club, but Wild also feels like a more significant directorial achievement than the previous film did. As in Dallas, Vallée tends to keep his style subdued, putting the performer and story front and center, but in the characteristic way Wild is shot and edited, with such detail-oriented photography and stream-of-consciousness cutting, one can feel the hand of an inspired helmer at work. This is a passionate, beautifully-realized film, subtle and subdued where it so easily could have been obvious and overwrought, and in a year practically bursting at the seams with accomplished ‘true-life’ tales – The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Selma, and so on – Wild is one of the best.
Wild is now playing in select theatres and cites, including at the Landmark Esquire in Denver.