Tweetable Takeaway: Make sure the next hike to theater is for the movie Wild, a wonderfully life-affirming film.
By: Wil Loper, Contributor
Last time I saw a movie where a protagonist went off on his own to be alone with nature, it didn’t end so well. Heck, the movie title itself, WILD, forewent the Into the and so I figured, maybe this movie will just cut to the chase and Reese Witherspoon’s character will eat some poisonous seeds in the second scene. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen, and Wild manages to be one of the best life-affirming movies there is.
Witherspoon plays real life Cheryl Strayed, a woman who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone after her mother dies, she gets divorced, and she has partaken of all manner of sex and drugs. With no experience, a backpack three times the size of her, and boots that are too small, Strayed sets out from the U.S.-Mexico border in the hopes of getting her life back in order. She can barely lift the pack up, buys the wrong type of fuel for her portable stove, and ends up eating lots of cold mush along the way.
The movie nails perfectly that feeling of becoming lost in your own thoughts when you only have yourself as company. Here it’s a long hike, but it could just as easily be substituted with a long drive or a sleepless night. Memories float in and out for Strayed, go down unexpected paths. Sometimes a word triggers the memory, or a song that can so easily transport us to a moment in time when it played.
And just like in real life, Strayed never sets about remembering a certain part of her life. She doesn’t set out on the 22nd day of hiking and say to herself, today I’m going to reflect on my childhood. Or, this is the day I want to examine my failed marriage in detail. These memories just flood in, some more often than others. Like a piece of chicken stuck in our teeth, some memories keep stubbornly coming up. Usually, our brains make sure these are the most embarrassing or ashamed of memories. Like when Strayed’s husband walks in on her sleeping with another man. Or when she has sex with two men in an alley behind her work. There’s very few places our brain will refuse to take us given enough time, and the harder we try to repress some memories, usually the more they show up.
Wild doesn’t offer up any solutions for Strayed, nor does she really come to any grand realizations. How often does that really happen in real life, anyhow? There’s no easy fix to Strayed’s problems, no guarantees that she won’t relapse into the drug and sex-fueled behavior as soon as she’s back. But she knew her life needed a reset button of some kind, and the hike is as close as she gets to one. Near the end of the hike, we hear Strayed’s narrate as she writes in her journal that she is desperate to be done with the hike, but also terrified of living life again. Being in nature is simple, there’s only survival. Going back Strayed narrates she’ll only have two dimes to her name. Living today means having a job and a place to live and bills and everything else that goes with it.
Besides all the memories floating around in the ether, there’s the hike itself. Some of the film’s biggest moments of tension stem from Strayed doing the hike alone, and further than that, doing the hike alone as a woman. Sure, there are rattlesnakes and howling animals too close for comfort, but it’s not nearly as scary as when a few men holding guns stumble upon Strayed nearly dehydrated. There’s a theme throughout that nature is tough and scary, but it’s nothing compared to life with real humans.
Reese Witherspoon is terrific as Cheryl Strayed, holding back nothing in her performance. She hauls around the enormous backpack and hikes over all kinds of terrain. Those accustomed to seeing Witherspoon in lighter, cute button-nosed character roles will be surprised when she delves into Strayed’s darker turns in life, diving headfirst into drugs and sex. Turning in a performance that steals every scene she is in is Laura Dern as Cheryl Strayed’s mother, Bobbi: a wellspring of bubbly optimism that Cheryl never fully understands growing up. After all, most of Cheryl’s and Bobbi’s life has been financially tough and filled with an abusive father and husband.
Despite mostly following one woman hiking alone in nature, Wild has so much to say on living. It’s a movie about finding one’s way after getting lost, and it’s immensely enjoyable every step of the way. It never delves into being overly sappy, Strayed’s problems aren’t ever waved away with a magic wand, but there is still hope, hope that the human spirit can and does prevail. Sometimes it just takes a really heavy backpack, some hiking boots, and mush. Lots and lots of mush. I give Wild 4.5 bowls of mush out of 5.
Score: 4.5 out of 5