Reese Witherspoon Takes a Walk on the Wild Side

Wild (2014)
Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee
Fox Searchlight, 155 minutes, R (nudity, language, drug use)
* * * *

How does one deal with grief and misfortune? Seek to rise above it or sink below it? That’s the central question in Wild, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s acclaimed 2012 memoir.

If Strayed doesn’t sound like a normal last name, it’s not. Strayed was born Cheryl Grey and adopted the last name Strayed as an ironic descriptor for the self-made hell she put herself through. It began when her mother, Barbara “Bobbi” Grey, died of fast-moving cancer when Cheryl was a senior in college and passed through phases such as survivor’s guilt, a failed marriage, heroin abuse, random promiscuity, and abortion. Wild tells the story of how she began to rebuild her life while on a 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail from California’s Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border.

In the film, Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is forced to contrast her jaded cynicism with her mother’s (Laura Dern) carefree bohemianism. Bobbi had way more reasons to stray than her daughter–flight from a physically abusive, alcoholic husband sentenced her to a too-short lifetime of single motherhood lived just above the poverty line. Yet when we see Bobbi in flashback, she’s the one who breaks into song, sashays across the room, and explodes into convulsive laughter at her own silliness. In a key adolescent moment Cheryl seeks to belittle her mother by noting it must be hard to have a daughter who is more “sophisticated” than she. Bobbi unashamedly replies, “That was always the plan.” 

The story is moving, the scenery stunning, and the journey perilous. Witherspoon continues to prove that there’s a real actress residing in her luminous body. She actually lugged a 65-pound backpack for this film, a feat that adds verisimilitude to the scenes in which trail weariness is etched on her brow. She also fearlessly doffs her clothing and her dignity to underscore how thin the borders had become between Strayed's pretty girl promise and use-me depravity. When Strayed and her ex-husband, Paul (Thomas Saduski) receive identical tattoos the day their divorce is finalized, the parallel between the external abuse cycle from which her mother fled and the internally constructed one Cheryl embraces is literally etched upon her bicep.

Strayed’s three-month walk along the Pacific Crest Trail is strewn with possibility for both damnation and grace. Though we know the latter will win, it does not diminish the poignancy of the journey. The final leg of the sojourn takes her through Ashland, Oregon, where she learns that Jerry Garcia has just died and finds herself in the midst of mourning Grateful Dead-style. It is there she connects her mother’s grief with her own as a tribute band wails out the words to “Ripple:”

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone
Ripple in still water
When there is no 
pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Wild is a very good movie though, like many road films, there are places where the languid pace is wearisome. Scriptwriter Nick Hornby tries to enliven this through an episodic account of the trek, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. There are several scenes excerpted from the memoir that seem ham-handed on the screen, including Strayed's encounter with an erstwhile journalist who insists she is a female hobo even when told otherwise, and a ride with a burnt-out hippie couple dealing badly with their daughter’s death that has little context. Each probably make more sense in the memoir (as would Cheryl’s decision to divorce Paul). We can also predict most of the menaces Strayed will face—and she does. Serious hikers might also tut-tut scenes in which Witherspoon is referred to as a reeking trail mess, but never seems to be much messier than a sweat stain, blisters, brush burns, and pack bruises. Still, Witherspoon gives a superb performance worthy of the Best Actress Oscar nomination she garnered. Inexplicably, Dern got one for Best Supporting Actress. I love Laura Dern, but her appearances in Wild are little more than expanded cameos—too slight for a nomination, IMHO.
This film won’t isn't for those who want thrill-a-minute action. There's more tension in the possibility of what might happen than what does. Still, it's well worth lacing up your own REI boots to walk a few miles in Cheryl Strayed’s shoes, even if you're not born to be wild.-- Rob Weir


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This has been sitting in my list for a couple of weeks = couldn't decide how it could be all that interesting / Finally decided to give it a go today and I LOVED IT!! Reese is not one of my favorites , but she nailed this!!!!! Fantastic acting, story & beautiful scenery!

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