Wild is a mildly-satisfying travelogue through one woman’s troubled life that never quite delivers the catharsis it promises. Reese Witherspoon gives a brave, physically-demanding performance, despite her character’s unconvincing psychological transformation. Director Jean-Marc Vallée deftly intertwines our hero’s tragic past with her epic hike along the Pacific coast, but neither informs one another on an emotional level. The result is a beautiful looking film that feels lonelier than a desolate mountain pass.
When you’ve blazed a trail of bad decisions and self-destruction, sometimes your only option is to forge a new path. In this case, the new path is the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and the poor decisions belong to Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon). If hiking 1100 miles from Mexico to Canada across unforgiving terrain sounds like an extreme form of redemption, you probably don’t know the extent of Cheryl’s sins. Booze, drugs and illicit sex have destroyed her marriage with Paul (Thomas Sadoski), and besmirched the memory of her adoring mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern).
Through an intricate series of flashbacks, we see Cheryl’s upbringing and adolescence come into focus. Mostly, we see a mother who loved and nurtured Cheryl, protecting her from the abusive father they barely escaped. The movie’s theme is perfectly summarized by a mother’s advice to her willful daughter; “Find your best self and hang on for dear life.” For Cheryl, however, that ‘best self’ is lost in a haze of heroin and one-night stands. Armed with a ton of useless camping supplies and just enough knowledge to be dangerous, Cheryl embarks upon her “long walk back to the woman her mother thought she was.”
Adapted from Strayed’s memoir, director Jean-Marc Vallée painstakingly sculpts a landscape that will either kill Cheryl or save her. Vallée uses cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s uncanny eye for scenic expanses to highlight just how insignificant and small Cheryl is, even if she doesn’t realize it. She is literally hundreds of miles from civilization, and even further away from her comfort zone. From deserts to lakes, snowy mountains to barren flatlands, the PCT makes the ideal metaphorical setting for a hero’s grueling journey to redemption.
Unfortunately, the script, penned by Nick Hornby, fails to take narrative advantage of Cheryl’s surroundings. Aside from a brief moment of doubt at the start of the trail, when Cheryl comforts herself with the mantra, “You can quit any time,” her completion of the journey is a forgone conclusion. She encounters a few obstacles, sheds some blood (and one funky toenail), and evades a couple of creepy dudes, but she never confronts a genuine ‘moment of truth’ where success seems uncertain. Hornby expertly weaves Cheryl’s guilt and self-loathing into the narrative, but he doesn’t give her any new decisions to make along the trail. When she finally does make a decision to move forward—erasing her ex-husband’s name that she wrote in the sand—it has no connection to any of the flashbacks we’ve watched. It simply comes out of the blue, like a nugget of self-awareness that Cheryl has been hiding the entire time. Without the past and present informing one another, the thin story becomes little more than a stream-of-consciousness juxtaposition of pretty pictures and self-absorbed debauchery.
The primary reason Wild fails to connect on a deeper dramatic level, however, is that Cheryl is not the emotional core of the film; her mother is. Witherspoon does a fine job raging and emoting when things go wrong, but she remains a one-dimensional emotional slate. The only insight and personal philosophies we get are delivered by Bobbi; a hard working single-mother who refused to make excuses for her failures, going back to school and re-imagining her life. We admire Cheryl for being a survivor, but we don’t know anything about her world view… her dreams… her aspirations. The really difficult part of her journey will begin at the end of the PCT, but the script seems content to stay focused on her past.
Worse still, she’s a remarkably selfish character. Time and time again, whether it’s a group of helpful hikers or a friendly married couple in the woods, the kindness of strangers saves Cheryl from certain disaster. Yet, she never acknowledges this fact, reducing their kindnesses to minor plot devices to keep the story moving. Because we see no direct evidence of her transformation, the filmmakers are forced to tack on a sentimental, on-the-nose ending, complete with a sledgehammer voiceover telling us that everything’s gonna be alright. It’s a perfectly tidy ending for a messy, dysfunctional character, and it feels completely artificial.
Luckily, we get strong performances from Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon to elevate the familiar storylines. Dern, in particular, is a shining light. She provides life and energy to an otherwise dour affair. Witherspoon is to be commended for her dominating physical presence in a role devoid of glamour and pretention. She doesn’t get to show many colors, but she attacks the canvas with everything she’s got.
Wild is far from a bad film, but it never delivers the knockout punch it needs to be a good film, either. In their zeal to remain faithful to Strayed’s source material, the filmmakers have eviscerated the cinematic guts of their story. Ultimately, this gorgeous film will fade from your memory the moment you leave the theater.