Shedding Weight, Acquiring Strength
The first sound you hear in Wild is a heavy panting. It’s the kind that suggests the woman, Cheryl Strayed, who soon appears to us in the middle of hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, is engaged in something other than hiking. This seems like an intentional beginning. The director, Jean-Marc Vallee, introduced us to Dallas Buyers Club like that, with a paper thin Matthew McConaughey making similar noises while thrusting at a rodeo. Sex wasn’t healing; it was painful. That Vallee inaugurates this beatific walk with wheezing gasps prepares you for a more battered, physical, soul-searching journey. In the moments that follow, Cheryl is plucking off her first toenail and watching her boot fall unceremoniously down a cliff.
The film is based on Strayed’s best-selling memoir, and it mines a well-established template of individuals plunging into wilderness to escape, contemplate, and exorcise their personal demons. That’s the usual arc of these odysseys and Wild generally follows it while still managing to climb down a trail of unpredictability. This is mostly due to Cheryl, played with gritty spirit and serenity by Reese Witherspoon, who is both ill-equipped and highly vulnerable to begin a northward hike from the Sierra Nevada desert to the lush Oregonian woods. Her backpack is ludicrously large just like her initial confidence. After hobbling her first 100 feet she turns around and in a breathy narration, which arbitrarily comes and goes, tells herself that she can quit at any time. She’ll later admit to doing this every two minutes.
In many ways Wild offers a director a certain freedom. The novel, sometimes melodramatic and wordy but always interesting, begins like the film, with that boot falling off a mountain. Then it backtracks at will, both to the hike and Cheryl’s own troubled life. It evades plot in a conventional sense, which often works better on the screen. Unlike Dallas Buyers Club, which felt burdened to a linear moral code, Vallee is able to emphasize the ephemeral randomness of memory. He achieves something authentic in the process, disregarding any structured output of backstory. Cheryl admits to her pre-trek struggles with divorce (from husband Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski) and heroin but, like those emotional states, they aren’t neatly packaged for consumption. The middle of a journey is rarely ever the middle of a story.
This allows writer Nick Hornby some liberties to reflect Cheryl’s often-meandering mind, imitating the trail she hobbles upon. Here he has abbreviated and condensed plot points, often rearranging the chronology of encounters on her path, including meeting men and wild animals, which you can only occasionally differentiate. To each of them– the kind hikers, the ravenous hunters, a mystical, recurring fox—she is brave, exposed, silly and strong, a single woman alone in wilderness. Witherspoon has to convey all of that through different shades of pain. Sometimes the grandiosity swallows her up. Other times Valee isn’t afraid to march his camera directly in front of her to see the sweat dribble down. It’s a way to convey the thought bubbles as her internal voice beckons forth.
Her reminiscences of life mostly concern her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who will fall ill with cancer as Cheryl finishes school. They, like all of Cheryl’s memories living at home in Minnesota, are captured with such sharp poignancy and economy. Flashbacks can often be a chore for filmmakers. Here, they’re treated like opportunities. Vallee doesn’t want to overwhelm you so he hands out dollops of moments, songs seeping through radios and laughs and rolled eyes. Even the darker events in Cheryl’s timeline—the affairs, the therapy, the drugs—begin with bottled accounts and short fuses. It works. Starting the PCT needs optimism. It doesn’t necessarily need a reason—or as Cheryl states, a “meaning”– for being walked. That, like uncovering her personal background, develops naturally and often unexpectedly. Enough hiking and thinking eventually supplants the early optimism, replacing it with a harder-earned will.
Vallee exits these personal histories with a buzzing urgency, as if heightening each fractal of memory with a cliffhanger. Soon, as Cheryl acquires more blisters so does her previous image. That is the primary challenge Witherspoon takes in this role, aside from believing she should be 26 years old. She’s small and fragile and her figure and condition seduces needed help. She’s not asking us to like Cheryl, especially when Bobbi’s death begins her downward spiral. And so witnessing her evolution, from teenage brat, to caring daughter, to disheveled loner, carries its own existential weight. You start realizing this woman is not out for redemption. She’s out to prove she already had it.
At one point her mother, given such loving energy from Dern, admits that she carries no regrets. No regrets marrying the abusive drunk father that produced Cheryl and her younger brother. Something resonates in the conversation because it has to. Cheryl has checkered her past with similar dysfunctional relationships. It’s led her to camping on dry tundra, rejoicing for hot mush and licking condensation off a tent to stay hydrated. These could be reasons to give up. While in college, Cheryl shares her lower-middle class misery with her mother, also taking classes in between jobs. She’s angry her mother is whistling and dancing to Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell given their laundry list of problems. “And then what?” she asks Cheryl. The question lingers on years later.
Maybe Witherspoon knows this role has some Oscar bait attached. But that’s ok. This isn’t an easy mail-in woman-goes-abroad category she’s crossing off. It’s also not trying to be. You don’t get the sense that anything is being exploited here, like a culture or a people. Witherspoon isn’t putting on a headdress for a few months and returning back to Minneapolis feeling cleansed and awakened. She’s not the Julia Roberts housewife lacking hobbies. She’s also not Chris McCandless from Into The Wild or Robyn Davidson in this year’s small and potent Tracks. Cheryl isn’t trying to conquer nature alone or even test it. She’s happy to stop into towns and greet strangers along the way. Isolation isn’t the goal. “It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild,” writes Strayed. This is a battle of endurance and personal strength. She’s testing herself.
Inspiration doesn’t need super-heroism and Cheryl’s trek parades that notion. Witherspoon struggles at nearly every turn and triumphs in the small achievements, like edging around a boulder with her pack precariously threatening to take her down. Her little screams, hollered when she meets a rattlesnake, remind you of her girlishness. Her howling with distant coyotes, reminds you of her experience. It’s a cathartic release, belting out familiarity into the abstract. So when she’s scribbling down Dickinson, Frost, and Michener into her journal and humming her mother’s songs, she’s had a realization. She’s not avoiding her story, she’s accepting it.