Wild is an ode to women’s inner strength. The film is an adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir, which tells the story of how she hiked 1,110 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail. The film starts off with Cheryl – played by Reese Witherspoon – sitting at the edge of a cliff in a beautiful landscape of the Northern Pacific pulling a toenail off a bloody, battered foot. She has been hiking for a few weeks at that point and Cheryl is in pain, but she is also resolute, refusing to allow that pain nor the vast landscape overwhelm her. The scene, though a little hard to watch, sets the tone for the journey we are about to embark on with Cheryl: a lonesome trail filled with physical pain and emotional mountains to be climbed. Cheryl decides to embark on the hike after finishing a painful divorce, still grieving the loss of her dear mother and feeling guilty about the missteps she took while mourning, such as casual sex with strangers and picking up a heroine habit.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s adaptation focuses on Cheryl’s inner struggle. Vallée’s portrayal of the open spaces and the solitude on the trail is quite stunning, but the real cause for admiration is his treatment of Cheryl’s guilt-ridden past, which appears as flashbacks scattered throughout the film. The fact that the novel Wild is a bestseller can be tricky for a director, as many will inevitably compare the film to their personal experiences with the novel. However, this film can stand on its own as a different experience. The film medium is not as personal, but it allows for further introspection by the viewer.
Cheryl’s memories of sorrow mixed with real happy moments that feature her mother (playfully portrayed by Laura Dern) are at the heart of the emotional baggage Cheryl lugs around the Pacific Trail. The memories seem few and scattered enough so that the story is not an expositional, linear sob story. Rather, Vallée invites the audience to join the journey, making connections on their own and offering a non-chronological narrative that showcases a deeply flawed heroin. While you might think it’s hard to root for a woman who engages in promiscuous behavior, has addictive tendencies and seems to have lost her vision; her redeeming qualities are so raw and real it’s hard not to feel for her. Her journey is as much a self-discovery as it is a re-invention. In a letter she writes to her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), she ponders:
Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself:
What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently? What if I’d wanted to fuck every single one of those men?What if heroin taught me something?
As with the writing, Witherspoon has the ability to capture brutal honesty mixed with an intense vulnerability. To convey an internal struggle is not an easy feat, especially for an actress known for her comedic roles. In Wild, Witherspoon sets Cheryl free through a series of cathartic moments. Witherspoon has also earned a nomination for Best Actress from the Golden Globes, a well-earned nod for the actress who appears in almost every frame of the film.
The film’s cinematography captures the beauty of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the heat of the Mojave desert to the green and luscious forestry in Washington State. The emotional journey is also full of vivid imagery, from anger and deep sorrow over the mother’s death to forgiveness and heartache. One of the most poignant moments of the film comes when Cheryl encounters a boy, Kyle (Evan O’Toole), out on a walk with his grandmother. After a brief, polite conversation Kyle shares with Cheryl that he has some problems that he’s not supposed to talk about with strangers. Cheryl then over-shares too, opens up about her mother’s death and suddenly saying it out loud changes the tone of the conversation. The encounter is both a painful reminder of the sadness that has marked her and an acceptance of the past.
Wild runs 115 minutes and is rated R (sexual content, nudity, drug use and language). It opens this Friday in select theaters. In South Florida, the only indie theater showing it is O Cinema Miami Beach. For other theaters across the nation showing it, visit the film’s homepage.