A careful adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, “Wild” tells the true story of the author’s inner struggle as she walks out of a troubled past – on a solo trip of 1,100 miles.
Reese Witherspoon takes on the part of Strayed, whose life has unraveled into uninhibited promiscuity and a mirage of heroin after losing her mother to cancer. With nothing else to live for – no home, partner or job – Strayed decides it’s time to live one of her dreams and plans a backpacking trip north on the Pacific Crest Trail.
From the start, Strayed’s struggle on the long journey is clear. Without any means of communicating with the outside world, Strayed must solve her many challenges – from crossing paths with a rattlesnake to bypassing the worst Sierra Nevada snow of the decade – alone.
The intensity and peril of the journey is portrayed in riveting and sometimes difficult to watch scenes, like when Strayed pulls off one of her too-small boots during a rest on a mountain peak, revealing a bloody and bruised foot and a dangling toenail. With viewers cringing, Strayed grabs the nail and pulls quickly.
As she stumbles backward from the force, a boot slides off the cliff, and Strayed grabs the other boot and chucks it off the mountain, yelling, “Fuck yeah, bitch,” with such anger that a burden of pain and troubles is released through the sound.
Strayed’s closest friend, Amy (Gaby Hoffmann), agrees to send food and care packages to each stop on her trip, reminding her, “You know you can quit at any time,” but Strayed is resilient, and her determination to finish the impractical journey makes her character fascinating.
Witherspoon as the rugged, strong-willed yet regretful and lost Strayed is a refreshing change from her usual rom-com roles, and her narration throughout the film creates an enduring connection with the audience.
Without the need for anything more than clear and minimalist shots of the beautiful West Coast forests, the camera follows Strayed as she walks past the natural blue lakes, mossy rainforests and windy deserts, and the imagery itself is a work of art.
Strayed’s haunting past is depicted through blurs of dark flashbacks, but these scenes of damp apartments with a drugged Strayed lying on the ground are largely unexplained, making the film feel somewhat stagnant.
Because of the lack of insight into Strayed’s inner thoughts or earlier life, the film’s conclusion seems rushed and cut off. Although Witherspoon narrates an epilogue to her story, the actions of her character during the film don’t reflect her apparent outcome, and the viewer is left thinking how she overcame the troubles haunting her.
The viewer knows Strayed has gone through a change in her behavior and outlook, but isn’t quite sure why or how.
Author Cheryl Strayed’s powerful story allows director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Nick Hornby to craft a unique film that stands out from other recent releases, if it be by plot alone. But though the first half of the film connects viewers to Strayed’s life and confides in them her past struggles, it is missing the resolution that makes her 1,100 mile hike worth it.
Released: Dec. 5
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”)
Writer: Nick Hornby (“An Education”)
Cast: Reese Witherspoon (“The Good Lie”), Laura Dern (“The Fault in Our Stars”), Gaby Hoffmann (“Veronica Mars”), Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman