I’m not usually one for hiking, but certain opportunities will present themselves and I’m happy to scale a mountain, or trek deep into the forest. For me, it’s less about the walking and more about the surroundings. Who doesn’t love being in the heart of nature and taking in the seemingly untouched world around them? Every time I’ve gone hiking I have been with at least one other person and am usually with a group. Picturing a day-long hike with only myself isn’t all that bad, but a few months is just something that I, nor most people could fathom.
Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is a beautiful young woman who, on the surface, seems to be just fine. She’s packing for some kind of trip and her backpack is nearly twice her size. She struggles to get it on and then proceeds to struggle to walk. She has a vague idea of where she’s going, but she hasn’t the slightest clue of what it will take to get there. Cheryl is dead set on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100-mile hike from Oregon, which she’ll hike on her own. Cheryl is walking away from the only life she knows, one that’s filled with flaws, unforgivable mistakes, and catastrophe that struck her when she was young.
Before her journey, Cheryl grew up in a small home with her loving mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). Despite not living in the best of conditions and having an absentee and abusive husband, Bobbi does her very best to make life wonderful for Cheryl and her brother. As Cheryl grew older and bore witness to more terrible things in her life, she mistreated her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) by sleeping around with anyone who would ask. Then came the heroine habit which was incredibly hard for her to break. Her best-friend Aimee (Gaby Hoffmann) attempts to help her, but Cheryl realizes that only she can hope to help herself when she goes on the hike. She’ll face nature and hopefully finish the hike having discovered something out about herself.
Wild echoes the lone-wolf films usually inhabited by flawed men and instead, gives us a flawed female lead that captivates and takes the audience along for a beautiful trip. Whether it’s the feminine presence, the picturesque cinematography, or the spirituality that this film evoked, Wild manages to do most everything well and it makes for a very moving time at the movies. This film has certainly resonated far better with female audience members, but I believe there’s a lot to be gained for every audience member, as this film is less about a woman and more about a person. It’s just the fact that we’re used to seeing a man in this role that we notice something is different.
Reese Witherspoon does a stunning job as the lead in this film, as she really does leave everything behind and immerses herself in this character. She perfectly portrays a flawed and broken woman, struggling to find herself and get to a point where she can have an idea of what she wants to be. The physical and mental toll that this trip takes on her is evident in her bruises, mangy hair, and bloodied feet, all examples of the actual effort Witherspoon put into this role. Yes, her character makes some very poor and questionable decisions, but her relentless effort on her journey is both admirable and inspiring, as she goes searching for something she doesn’t yet know about herself. Whether she’s drugged up, bruised, or freshly cleaned, Witherspoon is excellent in a role that stands out among her work.
Director Jean-Marc Vallee has chosen the perfect followup to Dallas Buyers Club, as he gets a wonderful parallel with a female lead. His focus is on a character that society would deem unacceptable today and she has to go through a lot in order to get to a better place. Vallee focuses heavily on Witherspoon’s struggle with the walk, the past that she’s attempting to walk away from, and the nature that surrounds and influences her mood. The sense of spirituality felt comes from the mashup of breathtaking scenery that couples with Witherspoon’s emotion. Vallee’s tracking shots are impressive and his exploration of how nature interacts and influences human emotion is incredible. The journey stretches across dessert, forests, plains, and mountains and Vallee is there, happily guiding us.
More often than not, road films revolve around men who are hoping to find something out about themselves along the way. They make mistakes and no matter the size or severity, audiences forgive them and end up on their side. With a female lead doing drugs and sleeping around, the discussion shifts and more judgement falls upon the woman, because apparently only men can do those things and have society forgive them more easily. Wild flips that notion around and embraces Cheryl Strayed, flaws and all, and doesn’t necessarily ask her to atone for her actions. Sure, she messed up big-time in her life, but she’s not inherently a bad person. Her journey isn’t for forgiveness, nor is it for anyone else. She goes out on this 1000+ mile journey, as a lone woman, and manages to come out on the other side unharmed and changed. The trek is dangerous for anyone, let alone a young woman without much to fend attackers off with, and Cheryl does it all for herself.
Throughout the film, there aren’t too many characters that pop up in Witherspoon’s life, but the one’s that do all say something about her state and how others view her. Her relationship with Dern is revealing, but Dern really doesn’t do much past smiling and playing things off as good. She’s fine in the role, but her parent isn’t all that believable and Witherspoon’s memory of her becomes more obnoxious than it does helpful. Sadoski’s husband and the relationship between him and Witherspoon is one of the film’s weakest aspects, but I do understand that the focus is not on him or their past, but Witherspoon’s eventual future. Hoffmann’s supposed role as the best-friend is fairly underdeveloped and had there been a bit more time spent on the two of them, I think we could have truly seen a different angle of Witherspoon’s downfall.
Wild chooses not to dress things up and make Cheryl Strayed out to be better than she really is. Vallee’s straightforward direction puts her in all lights and explores who she believes she is, moreso than whom other’s believe she it. There’s explicit imagery that could be seen as unnecessary if filmed by someone else, but Vallee highlights flaws and successes through his “explicit” lens and finds a way to portray them as art. The film did drag towards the end, but aside from the partially formed characters, I really enjoyed the film as whole. Reese Witherspoon and Jean-Marc Vallee really impressed me with this outing and I’m hoped that it’s viewed as it should be, by all members of the audience.