Film Review – Wild
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is preparing to go on a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in Wild. We are not told why, but sense that this is something she thinks she needs to do even though she cannot say why. As she starts out, she is getting a huge pack with all the food, supplies, water, etc., ready yet then struggles to get her pack filled and put on, getting some laughter from the audience. It played to me more that she has thought this through and yet hasn’t; she has all the gear she would need but the idea of what this was going to be like, walking and carrying this much stuff, was beyond her. Something is driving her and we are unclear what it is and it makes her more fascinating: we can sense that there is something wrong that inspires her to take on this endeavor.
These details are parceled out in flashbacks as Cheryl hears a song, or talks to someone on the trail, or is reminded in some way about her past just by seeing nature around her. These are usually very quick moments, like a momentary thought we have before we push it aside because the memory is too painful. Without giving too much detail, most of these flashbacks revolve around her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), a woman who has done much for her children even if they do not always appreciate it, and that she is the foundation to much of what has defined Cheryl. These flashbacks were very effective for the most part, slowly giving details of what has happened to Cheryl to lead her to this moment, letting us sit with the pain she has endured and giving context to her hike. Half way through, when the flashbacks have revealed what hurt Cheryl, we are still given more flashbacks that start repeating what we already know, but with little new information or context. Taken as thoughts Cheryl was having, it made sense that they were still on her mind but viewing wise, it became more heavy handed in its emotional beats.
What was welcomed, though, is how Cheryl is presented at all times and how this hike is defined for her. There is never a sense that this hike is something essential for her to become better or that it is a cure-all for her issues. It is something she decides to place importance on for herself because she needs to do something and this is what she decided on. It could have been go to a Buddhist sanctuary or swim the English Channel. The hike itself isn’t important, it is that she set a goal for herself because she needs to change. This is made clear in the people she meets who never make her out to be more than she is. She meets people, and sometimes shares a small connection with them because they are facing similar issues of loss or just being dedicated to the hiking experience. Some almost reach a level of cliched, thoughtful people, but it is kept pretty well balanced. It is helpful that most people are there for a few minutes, tops, before she needs to keep moving. She is able to take them in and add that to the overall experience of her hiking, while never making them stand out as more important than they are.
This, of course ,all wouldn’t have worked without Witherspoon, herself, doing some of her finest acting. She wears the determination and pain of Cheryl’s life in her face and her motions. She is also our narrator throughout, hearing her thoughts in voice over as she talks or writes a poem in her journal, and of course seeing her, in flashbacks, deal with her mother. Overall, it is a quiet performance in that so much of what lets us into her as a character is the way Witherspoon keeps her face emotional and emotionless. She keeps the scars out there but never lets them consume her; she is a person on the mend and knows this and tries to be strong but doesn’t hide her fear. As the walk progresses and she meets up with people, we can see her joy in finding some people but also the fear in not knowing what they will do with an unarmed female all alone. Witherspoon carries her character, and the film by extension, beautifully.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée I have associated with giving his lead actors meaty roles, but his skill in structuring his stories and creating realism in his supporting cast has not always been the strongest. Here, he is showing great growth by taking his time to let us see Cheryl trying to get by in the wilderness, the struggles of just getting through the day, and little mistakes she makes. The use of voice overs and flashbacks does a good job of letting the details of Cheryl’s issues come to light without spelling out everything. This is Cheryl’s story and what her pain is, so we get few other people who are given a chance to shine, but the supporting cast is given some good moments, like Gabby Hoffman as a close friend who disappears after one emotional flashback that makes you wonder what other role she plays in Cheryl’s life. The big one, though, is Dern as Bobbi, who is treated almost saint like in Cheryl’s mind; she was Cheryl’s center and her issues with where her mother is now is what defines Cheryl’s current situation, yet as a character herself, Bobbi has little to define her. We know she is cheerful but has had some bad things happen in her life but there is little else from her. While not a downside of the film, it is noticeable that the film does live or die by how you relate to Witherspoon.
Witherspoon for me really worked and overall this movie surprised me. Usually the character going out into the wilderness is treated with an aura of awe for what they are doing or for their foolishness for not knowing what they are getting themselves into. This took a middle path and was stronger for it, for while why Cheryl Strayed did this is clear by the end, the exact nature of what this experience did is unexplained, just that it did do something for her. The skill Jean-Marc Vallée and Witherspoon have exhibited in creating this experience of Cheryl as a humble yet insightful person, was engaging the whole way through, making us feel for her and hope for her and yet never making her anything but a woman trying to find herself.