I've not read Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild, on which the movie is based. And I've seen only a few Reese Witherspoon movies (I liked "Election" the best). So most everything here was new to me. "Wild" tells two stories simultaneously: Cheryl's punishing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, starting at the Mexican border and finishing hundreds of miles later at the Oregon-Washington border, and the circumstances that drove her there.
It's a movie where shards of memory stab across timelines, where sleeping in a tent during a snowstorm or eating cold mash at sunset bring back memories of warm kitchens or lost weekends. The hike provides the linear, chronological, forward movement while the turmoil of her past erupts non-linearly along the way -- emotional shrapnel from childhood and adulthood traumas tear through the story seemingly randomly, until the shards coalesce into a recognizable mosaic by the end.
I liked "Wild," though I am perhaps a little weird in that I like movies without much plot. Some of my favorite movies are "Russian Ark," "Before Sunset," "My Dinner with Andre" -- movies that are somewhat talky, have a dreamy temperament, and where the journey is the destination.
But if I had to summarize -- "Wild" is a movie about getting lost and finding one's way out. The estimable Nick Hornby fashioned the packed screenplay from Strayed's incident-filled story, while director Jean-Marc Vallée stages and paces the trek and the flashbacks.
From the start, Cheryl is clearly inexperienced, overpacked, and overburdened, not only by her burgeoning backpack and supplies, but by her memories: her years of heroin abuse, her years of cheating on her husband and the inevitable wreckage of their marriage, and, most of all, the overwhelming grief and void left by her mother's death that is as big and seemingly incomprehensible as the landscape she crosses.
I liked the movie's stew of trail adventures, memories, snatches of dialogue and song, and disconnected images that finally resolve into a finished portrait. I liked not having the whole story and then piecing it together myself, a necessity since the hike itself is more episodic than dramatic.
That said, the movie does rather fall in love with its storytelling style and Vallée overeggs the pudding with one appearance too many of a wild (magical?) fox that shadows Cheryl on the trail. I did sometimes want to shake the movie and tell it to please sit still and settle down so we can get on with it.
As for Cheryl's backstory, I agree with the Saturday Review panelists who found those bits the least compelling. As truthful and real as those incidents were -- and apparently, pretty much everything the movie presents to us about her descent into self-destruction happened -- they are for whatever reason simply less interesting than seeing Cheryl meet the trail-based problems head-on: what does she do when her water runs out on the edge of a scrub desert? How will she get herself and her hyuuge backpack (that is as tall as her and probably half her body weight) up and through this narrow mountain crevice? How is she going to walk through the woods after one shoe slides off a mountain and she throws the other one after it in frustration? (And that's after she loses her toenails from wearing too-tight shoes -- yikes!).
Seeing her persevere and overcome these problems was fascinating to watch. But I also hear the voice of my playwright friend Karyn, who would say that without the family story, without that pain in her past, you can't have the story we see in the present.
I agree, but ... I think Strayed hit on the essential difference in one of her interviews. The story of her spiral into self-destruction is a story of her running away and refusing to face her troubles. On the trail, however, that choice doesn't exist -- she either gets her ass over the snow-covered mountains or she doesn't. She either goes forward or she goes back -- and despite the temptations to drop out and leave the trail early, she never does. The will and stamina that enabled her body to survive years of self-inflicted abuse is the same toughness that helps her push on, survive, and heal. So that when she finally emerges from her dark wood at the end, the moment is both everything she's wanted and the quietest triumph in the world.
One of the movie's thrumming themes is of vulnerability and violence -- both physical and emotional. The most obvious vulnerability is the physical threat of violence, as a woman hiking alone. While Cheryl meets friendly male hikers along the trail who provide needed companionship and advice, she also must predict and deflect the attentions of predatory men, who echo the violence her mother suffered at the hands of her father.
She bears marks of violence, to be sure -- the scars and abrasions she collects on her body by the heavy backpack rubbing against her skin, falling, climbing, scraping against trees and brush. But the trail isn't doing her violence. The trail is just there, the way it's always been there, and always will be there. This is just part of the hike. She's earning these scars, just as she and her husband marked themselves with his-and-her tattoos as "parting gifts" to each other on their divorce.
More tender are the movie's moments of emotional vulnerability. There is a key scene where Cheryl's beloved mother tries to teach her -- through words and deeds -- how to stay open to life and to love. It's a lesson the young Cheryl is not ready to accept.
And that moment comes home in a poignant scene when Cheryl talks with a woman and her grandson in a pouring rain along the trail. The boy hints that he has suffered a tragedy and sings for Cheryl a song his music-teacher mother taught him: that melancholy old ballad "Red River Valley." My God, but even now, as I think on how that song hangs over that scene, as time slows down and I see Cheryl's heart break as this unafraid little boy sings verse after verse of this haunting song ... well, my heart rises in my throat and I am as overcome as Cheryl. It's the quietest, most touching, most devastating moment for me in the entire movie.
If you're interested in behind the scenes stuff, see this History vs Hollywood page that provides loads of details on where the movie and reality agree and diverge.