Jean-Marc Vallée’s (of Dallas Buyers Club) latest film, Wild, opens as a cautionary tale for under-prepared hiking – we meet our protagonist, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), on the top of a mountain with her toenails falling off from too-tight shoes. She accidentally drops one into a ravine and throws the other after it in frustration. We then pick up at the beginning of her travels, just arrived at Mojave with all-new gear and ready to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, which traverses the United States from Mexico all the way up to Canada. Cheryl can’t even lift her bag at first, her shoes are too small and she has brought the wrong gas for her burner, leaving her eating cold mush made out of her expensive dehydrated meals. Watching her struggle through her hike, we’re lead to wonder what exactly could drive someone to undertake such a Herculean task with so little preparation.
And so we’re introduced to Cheryl’s chequered past through a series of flashbacks – her close relationship with her mother, a beatific Laura Dern, and her descent into illness and subsequent death; her heroin addiction and serial promiscuity; her deteriorating relationship with her husband Paul (a supportive but underused Thomas Sadoski). When Cheryl finds out she is pregnant, father unknown, she sees a guide to the Pacific Crest Trail while queuing for a pregnancy test, and decides to “walk herself back to the person her mother raised her to be”.
Wild is adapted from writer and advice columnist Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, with a screenplay from Nick Hornby. In translating it to the screen, Vallée faces the challenge of making over one thousand miles of walking not only interesting, but compelling and entertaining. The combination of flashbacks and hiking reveals gradually the reasons for Cheryl’s hike, while tiding us over with the drama of the hike itself, and her development in doing so. She finally gets the rights shoes, pushes through a difficult section of snow where other, more experienced hikers give up, and makes friends along the trail, becoming renowned as “The Queen of the PCT”.
The challenge of the film applies equally to Witherspoon, who has to carry the film and the majority of scenes by herself. She manages to invest us as an audience in the development, resolution and redemption of the character – the flashback scenes showing the extent of her spiral into sex and heroin are quite affecting, particularly given her chemistry with Sadoski. We are only given brief scenes of their marriage but it carries an instant credibility and comfort. As such, it’s difficult and moving at times to watch her, to see someone surrounded by people that love her feel so alone.
The other performances are all solid and functional, though it is a shame to see such a strong actor as Dern given so little to do, and as a character she exists as a sort of refrigerator mother, existing purely to die, to break and then inspire Cheryl. For a film that gives us such a strong, dominating female lead in Cheryl, it’s disappointing to see such a crucial role reduced to smiling and suffering.
Editing by Martin Pensa (and Vallée himself under pseudonym John Mac McMurphy) and cinematography from Yves Bélanger work to complement the script, distinguishing the two plot lines while managing the melding of the two. Witherspoon is generally framed from above, towered over by her pack, or from behind as she walks, preventing a sense of repetitiveness while giving a sense of her movement and progress.
At times the split between flashback and hiking feels a little inconsistent, as the flashbacks have the potential to be more interesting, more tense and more dramatic. The script does still wring as much tension and pacing from the hiking as possible, with several threats to Cheryl’s safety arising from both nature and man.
Ultimately it is satisfying to see Cheryl at the end of her journey, and there is a catharsis inherent to the structure of the plot. There is a lot of risk for Wild to miss the mark – produced by Witherspoon and her producing partner Bruna Papandrea and Strayed herself, it reeks of potential passion project indulgence – but manages to deliver a compelling narrative of self-driven redemption.