Wild is about one person’s journey to overcome the elements, to redeem herself and find some salvation. Cheryl Strayed packs up her monster of a pack and prepares to walk the Pacific Crest Trail.
This is a well-made character piece that’s helped by a strong performance by Reese Witherspoon in a film that challenges us to hold onto our best self despite life’s many obstacles. Let’s jump right in.
The film begins in the mountains. Climbing to the top is Cheryl Strayed, played by Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl has been going at this for awhile and takes a moment to compose herself. She pulls off her boots and shoes to reveal very bloody and bruised feet. If that wasn’t enough do deter you from hiking, maybe the sight of Cheryl pulling off a big, bloody toenail will.
However, she loses her footing a bit and one of her boots goes sailing down into the chasm. Enraged, Cheryl throws down the other boot and lets out a blood curling yell. Perhaps Reese Witherspoon could have another pair flown to her.
Anyway, the film then flashes back to Strayed being dropped off at a hotel. She pays the fee for the night, though the clerk leaves the door open for her to invite a partner. There will be none of that, though. Cheryl is planning to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. And since she’s unable to provide a license or address, she must provide another.
That address belongs to the man she then calls on the phone: her ex-husband, Paul, played by Thomas Sadoski. Paul is busy making dinner for a friend. He apologizes to Cheryl, though he’s not sure why he’s sorry. He hesitates when he tells Cheryl that he doesn’t understand why she’s walking 1,100 miles.
Cheryl has provided Paul with a list of addresses for various stops she’ll be making, so he can send her packages that way. During this, we get a brief flashback of her sitting a friend, who tells her that she can quit anytime.
When Cheryl finishes her call with Paul, she considers her options on who she can ask to help her reach the first part of trek. After all, you don’t want to just entrust your life to anyone.
All right, time to head out. Cheryl is all packed and ready to go…she’s a bit too ready to go. Her pack has backpacks on backpacks. Combined, the entire pack looks like a roller suitcase stacked on top of another roller suitcase, but with bags jutting out of every corner. She fills one bag with water to keep herself hydrated.
She tries to lug it out, with no success. The scene plays on for a while and is for comedic effect, but it does serve as a precursor to just how grueling this trip will be. Plus, if anything, it’s a chance to see Reese Witherspoon try out some sort of physical comedy, but I digress.
After getting her monster pack out of the hotel, Cheryl heads to the nearby gas station. She decides to hitch a ride with a couple. The husband plays a song that strikes a familiar chord with Cheryl, as the film flashes back to a younger Cheryl dancing with a woman. Problem is that the wife doesn’t like the music, so she turns it off. Sourpuss.
So the couple drops off Cheryl and the trek begins with the Day One entry. She pulls out the journal in the available mailbox, jots down an entry and begins walking. Cheryl very soon wonders just what the fuck she’s done. The journey goes on and on with her growing more delirious with every step, not to mention that heavy fucking pack on her pack. And remember, folks, this is only the first day.
After walking for five miles, Cheryl makes camp…she eventually makes camp. She writes a note in her journal and hopes that the receiver would not be angry if she decided to quit.
The film then flashes back to Cheryl’s school days. Surprisingly, they just had Reese Witherspoon play Cheryl as a student in addition to an adult. Here, she looks like she did on Election or Pleasantville. I digress. Anyway, young Cheryl/Witherspoon is in class during a lesson on Marie Curie. Once the lesson ends, she runs into the woman from the previous flashback: her mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern.
The flashback continues to that evening with Cheryl apologizing to Bobbi for apparently slighting her earlier at school. Bobbi isn’t upset. In fact, she’s still proud of her daughter nonetheless. Then enters Bobbi’s other child, Leif, played by Keene McRae. Leif and his friend have come by for some food. Cheryl chastises Leif for wanting their mother to do everything for him.
In the present, after a night’s sleep, Day Two has arrived. With her handy-dandy portable stove, Cheryl cooks herself some mush. She gets a lot of mush in her life right now. Regular mush, mush with nuts, she has mush dreams and even shits mush. I’m serious, there’s a shot of it under some rocks, but I’m pretty sure Reese Witherspoon didn’t take that shit. Point is that Cheryl loves mush.
Day Five arrives, 30 miles in, and Cheryl is still talking to herself. When we get to Day Eight, Cheryl notices that she’s running low on food. She can still give up this journey, if she wants to. She gets a break when she spots a farmer tending to the field on his tractor. She asks if there’s any place he can take her food, but according to a man, Frank, played by W. Earl Brown, nothing would be open at the hour. Plus, he needs to finish his work, so for now, Cheryl can just wait in his truck.
Cheryl does just that and finds herself still waiting for Frank to finish as night falls. She snoops around in the car and finds a gun. When Frank finally finishes, he gets in and tells his companion that she can come back to his place for dinner and a shower. The two bond over alcohol from his flask. Cheryl hesitates, but she does give in and takes a sip. She tells Frank that her husband is traveling ahead of her and she will catch up with him eventually. Right. Anyway, Frank does have just one more thing he needs to share with Cheryl.
Licorice! That’s right. Cheryl’s new friend has a sweet tooth, but she must keep quiet about it. Frank doesn’t want his wife finding out that he eats candy.
At Frank’s, Cheryl meets his wife, Annette, played by Jan Hoag. Just for precautions, Annette actually places newspaper on Cheryl’s seat. Any potential tension is thrown out the window as Cheryl eats the first decent meal she’s had in days. Annette and Frank find it crazy that Cheryl and her so-called husband would go on this excursion. Actually, Annette and Frank themselves are pretty snarky and have good banter. Annette even suggests that she take off with Cheryl. I instantly like these two not just because of their chemistry, but because they showed no hesitation to letting a complete stranger into their home and showing her some real hospitality.
As Cheryl showers the filth from her body, she has memories of Paul. The film then flashes back to the two of them getting tattoos. When the tattoo artist, played by Art Alexakis, asks the two why they’re getting ink, Paul explains that they’re getting a divorce. Getting the tattoos binds them together. There are better ways to do that, you know. Cheryl goes a bit further with the explanation: she cheated on Paul. A lot.
The two receive their divorce papers and say their goodbyes after seven long and crazy years.
In the present, Frank drops Cheryl off at her next checkpoint. Before Cheryl leaves, Frank correctly guesses that Cheryl’s boyfriend isn’t on the trail with her. She just said it because she was afraid of Frank at first. She makes a big leap forward in technology when she’s able to get a fire started with her portable stove. It’s the little things in life that matter, you know. In fact, Cheryl is so happy that she even calls out to the wolves that night.
Day 10 arrives. Cheryl has been able to trek five to seven miles a day. At that rate, she figures she’ll be done in about 20 years. That’s plenty of time. She does get sidetracked by a snake in her path, though.
The film then briefly flashes back to Cheryl again meeting up with her friend, Aimee, played by Gaby Hoffmann. And following a terrifying encounter with a tiny bug that causes Cheryl to blow her rape whistle, we cut to Paul and Cheryl arguing in the past.
Cheryl reaches 80 miles and comes across something she probably didn’t expect to see on the trail: a man skinny-dipping. This is Greg, played by Kevin Rankin. He recognizes Cheryl not by face, but from her name in the registrar. Greg is making good ground so far. He’s been able to do 20 miles a day. That comes with heavy preparation. Greg suggests that Cheryl head to a nearby camp where she can plan her next move.
We then cut back to Cheryl and Aimee as the two talk over margaritas. Cheryl tells Aimee that she believes she is pregnant. She has an idea of who the father may be. Whoops.
So the two head to a clinic. While waiting in line to take her test, Cheryl spots a book on a nearby shelf about the Pacific Crest Trail. After Cheryl receives the results, she leaves in a huff and begins to shovel the shit out of the snow covering her car. You make that snow pay, Cheryl! She tells Aimee that she has no intentions of having the baby. She was supposed to be strong, responsible and want things in life.
In the present, Cheryl comes face to face with a giant rock while scaling a mountain. She edges herself into the space between the mountain and the rock. Following this, she winds up at a camp on Kennedy Meadows. Greg and some other men welcome her in and help her get situated for the time being.
One of the men, Ed- or Amazing Ed- played by Cliff De Young, offers to help her clear out some extra stuff from her pack, which he refers to as “Monster.” What can she part with? The saw, the deodorant, some of her books and an entire roll of condoms, just to start. He also suggests that as Cheryl reaches a new point on the trail, she tears out that portion from her book on the Pacific Crest Trail. If that wasn’t enough, Cheryl learns that she can call a shoe store and have them deliver her new boots at her next destination.
We then cut back to Cheryl asking her mother what she sees in the author James A. Michener. She doesn’t get it. Cheryl sees herself as more sophisticated than her mother was at her age. After this exchange, following a brief snippet of Cheryl and Bobbi with their horse, we then head to the doctor’s office. Bad news: Bobbi has a tumor in her spine.
In the present, Cheryl arrives in Reno and calls Paul to let him know that she’s still alive. However, she now decides to hitchhike again. Most drivers pass by, but one does stop: a writer named Jimmy Carter, played by Mo McRae. Jimmy Carter here writes for The Hobo Times and he’s glad to finally meet another hobo. He knows these types, too. Trauma causes people to enter the hobo life. Cheryl insists that she’s not a hobo and women can’t just walk out of their lives, which likens her to a feminist in Carter’s mind. Rude. Regardless, she receives a nice hobo care package, but she does not a ride since Jimmy doesn’t have any room in his car.
Cheryl does eventually pick up a ride. The people inside, two men and one woman, are nice enough, though one of them does leer at Cheryl longer than necessary. Cheryl’s attention is drawn to the photo of a young boy, who was eight years old. He was killed when a truck struck him five years ago.
In the past, Cheryl tells her mother not to give up because they can fight this. In the present, Cheryl comes face to face with snow on Day 30. She suits up with her snow pants and continues on while two skiers pass by and let her know she’s in California. Dicks. Well, Cheryl at least isn’t lost. She’s just screwed. Then, the spots a fox…
We flash back to Cheryl arguing with the staff at the doctor’s office. Her mother had been given a year, but it’s only been a month and condition is deteriorating.
At home, still in the past, Cheryl chastises Leif for never visiting their mother. He has his reasons. He doesn’t want to accept the idea of her dying. He may have acted like she didn’t mean anything, but in reality, she meant everything to him.
On Day fucking 36, Cheryl remembers when she and her brother finally visited their mother together. One they arrive at the hospital…
…nah. You find out. Let’s hold it there.
When you take Wild at face value, the idea of someone simply walking around the country may not sound all that exciting or inviting of a premise. However, the film was made with a lot of care and shows respect to its source material, thanks to the performance of Reese Witherspoon- who also doubled as a producer- and the film’s director.
Jean-Marc Vallée, who recently directed Dallas Buyers Club, has an eye for the personal. In a way, Cheryl Strayed is similar to Ron Woodruff: she’s found herself in what looks to be an unwinnable position, but she pushes on, despite the risks. Of course, the difference is that Woodruff did eventually pass away, though years after his supposed death sentence. Strayed, as we know, lived to tell the tale. That’s not to take away from either journey, though.
Wild works on many levels: here is a woman that wants to get away from the world and just be with herself by mounting a seemingly impossible task. Things aren’t explained right away, but told in pieces so we can pick up more bits of information about an earlier scene as we travel with Cheryl.
This is not a linear film, evident from the film’s very opening. As the movie progresses, we’re treated to many flashbacks and, at times, flashbacks within flashbacks, to give us glimpses of Cheryl’s past, such as her childhood, relationship with her mother and brother, and her ties to Paul and Aimee. In addition, we see the slow self-destruction, ranging from drug use to having sex with the closest man she can find, that led her to embark on this journey. Even these moments aren’t presented in chronological order. For example, early on, we get a flashback of Paul and Cheryl arguing, but we don’t hear their conversation. Only later on, when we revisit the scene, do we learn why the two had a disagreement.
I’m not entirely a fan of how the flashbacks are edited. At times, flashbacks just pop on-screen during Cheryl’s journey. Sometimes there’s a trigger for them, and sometimes there isn’t. Some are fast, maybe half a second before we cut either back to Cheryl or to another flashback. Sure, if I wanted to stretch it, I could say that this represents the gaps in Cheryl’s mind, or maybe it’s due to her past, rampant drug use, or maybe the heat is making her delirious. These are all pretty ridiculous reasons to speculate on, but my point is I wish the flashbacks weren’t as frequent as they are in the movie. This is only an issue when the flashbacks appear in quick bursts, one after the other, but luckily, that doesn’t happen very often.
The movie has many themes and messages, most of which relate to Cheryl’s journey and her relationship with her mother: discovery, detachment, self-preservation, eternal optimism, redemption, salvation and, above all, survival. Cheryl could never be the woman her mother way: full of sunshine and happiness, even when life threw everything at her. The two attended school at the same time and Bobbi is a survivor of domestic abuse from her previous husband. These two factors seem like things that would make a person very cynical about life and how they choose to live it. Despite that, Bobbi is a constant ray of sunshine, much to Cheryl’s annoyance.
At one point, Bobbi tells Cheryl that it’s important to find and hold onto your best self, despite life’s obstacles. The problem is that Cheryl, for the longest time, couldn’t even find her best self. She found solace in having sex with random strangers, using drugs and betraying a man who had true feelings for her. And yet, she tells Aimee during one flashback that it felt good to do bad things. We aspire to achieve what we feel is best in life for us, but for Cheryl, that happiness and joy she feels comes at a price when she alienates the people close to her. As a result, she walked away from it all in order to find herself. Some have argued that Cheryl’s tale is more about redemption than salvation, but I think there are shades of both. Cheryl doesn’t deny the horrible things she’s done and she isn’t looking for pity. She wants to get lost in the wilderness until she discovers who she is, regardless of the risks.
A lot of the tense situations come through what Cheryl expects to happen when she encounters random strangers, as opposed to what actually happens. Sure, there’s a lot to be said about a person who walks 1,000 miles on their own, but the film makes a point of highlighting the dangers of being a woman that could be raped. Cheryl isn’t dumb, though, and she treats most situations with caution. To her surprise, though, most of the men she runs into turn out to be harmless and have good intentions. There are two tense encounters, but Cheryl is able to work her way out of them.
I get that Cheryl is doing everything necessary to protect herself, and maybe this is because I’m not a woman, but the film almost makes it seem as if every man Cheryl encounters might have some underlying motive. Newsflash, people, not every man who does something nice for you is doing it just to worm his way into your pants, as hard as that may be for some of you to comprehend. More often than not, many of the men Cheryl meet offer their assistance. It’s a smart way to turn tense encounters on their head, such as when Frank tells Cheryl not to tell his wife about him eating licorice, when Cheryl had just been worrying about the gun Frank had in his car.
In fact, the encounter with Frank is just one of many light hearted examples. For a movie like this, Wild has plenty of humor to it. The sight of Cheryl struggling to get her pack on her back before her journey even begins, meeting Jimmy Carter of The Hobo Times, Cheryl blowing her very loud rape whistle at the sight of a bug and her calling out the wolves are just a few examples of the film slowing down and reminding us that you can still laugh, even when there’s so much seriousness going on around Cheryl.
What I admire most about the main protagonist is how flawed she is because she comes off as more complex. If she had no issues with this hike or any personal problems, it would be harder to relate to her. Cheryl is far from perfect. In fact, she’s not even that much of a likable or even relatable character. She lashes out at her mother’s optimism, she cheats on her husband and showed no remorse at the time, got deep in drugs and her solution was to walk away from it all. From an objective point of view, all of these factors and more would not give audience members any reason at all to root for Cheryl.
But when we start digging deeper and learn about her abusive home life under her tyrant of a father, combined with her burning bridges with most of her connections, we see how she arrived at this point. Sure, it’s a bit of a stretch to go from sex and drugs to walking 1,100 miles with nothing but the pack on your back and I do wish we got more setup leading to this decision besides Cheryl just finding a book on the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s literally and figuratively weighed down by some serious psychological issues, but whatever task rests ahead of her, Cheryl does manage to find a way to conquer it. Some would say that Cheryl is literally just walking away from her problems and there’s some truth to that, but given her former, destructive ways, this is what she feels is the best decision for her. That’s not to excuse her behavior at all and no, I don’t fall into the camp who believes that Cheryl’s promiscuity would be viewed differently if the main character had been a man.
Cheryl is a fighter. What we learn from the very first scene is that she’s sitting on a lot of rage: at the world, at her mother and herself. She channels that anger and frustration into her hike and we see on her face the frustration when she meets another setback. And yet, despite every urge to turn around, she keeps moving forward. Reese Witherspoon’s performance is very visceral and she has a great, commanding presence as the main, focal point of the film. It’s one of the best lead performances I have seen in 2014 thus far. I wouldn’t say it’s as layered as Cate Blanchett was with Blue Jasmine in 2013, but that’s not really a fair comparison since they’re playing two very different types of characters. Both are wandering through life to make something of themselves, but Jasmine came from wealth and had an air of pretentiousness about her, while Cheryl detested her lot in life and squandered it when she had the chance.
Witherspoon isn’t doing any mugging for the camera and the film never focuses on her too long just to show off her face. Each time we see her, there’s a multitude of emotions and thoughts going through her head. Some of that is obvious by sight alone, and other times the emotions come through her narration. This is both a positive and negative for the film. While Cheryl’s thoughts are both funny and revealing, some narration is unnecessary when we’re able to see what Cheryl is going through just based on her facial expressions. The film does a good job of showing what she’s going through and I just wish it did more of that as opposed to Cheryl flat out telling us her situation.
It’s a minor complaint, but when so much of the film emphasizes what Cheryl sees, hears and breathes in all around her, the directors and writers should have allowed Witherspoon more freedom to dictate what’s going on around her instead of somewhat forced narration.
Much like Obvious Child, Wild has a twist with the main character’s significant other. Paul is someone who could have cast Cheryl aside after her infidelity, but he still stays in touch with her and is even proud of what she sets out to do, even if he doesn’t fully approve of it. It shows that, despite how Cheryl wronged him, he will still not turn his back on her as a person. Speaking of Obvious Child, by the way, I wish this film had more Gaby Hoffmann.
And while Witherspoon is a force in this film, the other bright star here is Laura Dern, who is happiness incarnate, even at her weakest moments. Like Cheryl, Bobbi has been through Hell, but unlike her daughter, Bobbi refuses to let anything get her down. She’s the kind of woman that Cheryl wishes she was and there’s not a mean bone in her body. This would be annoying if Bobbi flat out denied she had been through anything and just acted like her like she hadn’t endured any hardships. The difference is that Bobbi refuses to let any setbacks ruin her sunny disposition. She and Cheryl are so similar, but at opposite ends of the spectrum at the same time. Both women strived to make something of themselves and could have given up at any time, but Bobbi focused on the good in life, while Cheryl embraced the negative.
This is a very well made film that showcases some great direction from Vallée and an equally strong performance from Witherspoon. I’m not a betting man, but I do think she may at least get nominated for Best Actress based on this film. She commands each scene she’s in and is great from start to finish. Wild is about redemption and navigating through the darkness. While some of the themes and messages were a bit obvious and heavy handed, that did not take away from an enjoyable film about Reese Witherspoon’s journey to see how much she can fit on her back.