by Philip Price
The thought of Reese Witherspoon, the sweet and petite blonde from New Orleans made famous by broad comedies like “Legally Blonde” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” playing a down on her luck hitchhiker dealing with a past that includes drug problems and excessive fornication with the dealers of those drugs isn’t one that immediately meshes well. Despite “Academy Award Winner” being inscribed above her name every time she takes on an Oscar-bait role such as this, there still seems a very confined set of types we expect the actress to play. For some reason, I don’t expect Witherspoon to be a very versatile performer and though her actual person is no doubt much more interesting due, if for nothing else, to everything she’s accomplished, there is still such a specific on-screen persona I expect from her. As many actors before her looking to fulfill something more in their careers by challenging themselves or just to simply add depth to their filmogrpahy, Witherspoon breaks away from what is expected of her and completely embraces this necessary journey her character goes on, warts and all. In many ways it is refreshing. Witherspoon has been stuck trying to figure out where to go with her career after winning her Oscar for “Walk the Line,” semi-afraid of doing romantic comedies again, but finding comfort in them while love stories never stray far from her grasp. “Frozen” and “Maleficent” have both been huge hits for Disney, but more importantly they have raised the idea over the past year that not all love stories have to be about the romantic relationship, but more the love of what else enriches our lives. While “Wild” is nothing like either of those films, it keeps this kind of love story in mind and is executed in such a way that we come to appreciate the journey of the character realizing this factoid. “Wild” is a character study, but it is not a film that rests solely on the performance of its lead. Witherspoon is more than capable and fully immerses herself in the ever changing state of mind her character Cheryl Strayed must have experienced as we go on this journey with her, but more than that director Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”) has crafted a fully realized film around her.
Set mainly in 1995, “Wild” tells the story of Strayed who decided to hike more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) alone. We receive no precursor to this decision but instead are dropped immediately into the excruciating decision to take on this mammoth challenge. As the film opens and Witherspoon’s Strayed sits atop a cliff with a picturesque view we are brought in closer to see the brutality that lies within the beauty. Blood has soaked all the way through her sock and the nail of her big toe literally hangs on by a thread. Why would someone who clearly hasn’t conditioned herself for such a journey and is a novice in the ways of hiking and surviving off the land put herself through such a painful and perilous experience? We can guess at what the causes might be from any number of common human trials, but what is refreshing when discussing this film in particular is that Vallée understands we all have problems and much of his audience that will sit down to walk alongside Strayed have been through many of the same things. In recognizing this commonality the director builds the backstory of the character by interweaving details of her past into the main narrative in non-linear fashion. We don’t always know how what we are watching will piece into the bigger puzzle, but as it builds and as we see the strands coming together the intersecting stories are realized in a sincerely compelling fashion. There is much to discuss in the way of details that line the motivation for Strayed’s thousand-mile hike, but more than anything our heroine is doing this in an attempt to heal herself. Preceding her time on the PCT was years of destructive behavior that tore apart relationships but was done in reaction to other relationships failing or ending. While the film itself is very specific in its emotions and the events necessary to tell a full story, it is able to subtly touch on bigger themes and if not outright discuss them at least bring them into the viewer’s mind which is why I appreciate the film more than I necessarily enjoyed it.
There is nothing wrong with the film itself and it in fact becomes more interesting and, as previously stated, compelling the more the layers are pulled back on Strayed’s past, but on a basic level is the film anything more than a redemption story? No, not really. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this and I don’t have a problem with the real-life Strayed becoming well-renowned and optioning her written memoirs for movie deals as I’m sure her physical and emotional journeys are all the more enthralling and captivating on the page, but as a film it doesn’t feel as personal and thus retains the familiarity of a movie we’ve seen many times before. The one thing that can make all stories different, no matter if the overall objective of the plot is the same, is the approach of either the director or in cases such as this, the storyteller. This unique voice is what no doubt allowed Strayed’s story to stick out to publishers. I haven’t read the source material from which screenwriter Nick Hornby (“An Education”) based his screenplay, but while the main narrative feels as if it is being stretched thin in order to cover the required running time of a feature film if not a little more so that the film might carry more weight and be considered substantial, it is the gravitas that the flashbacks bring and the way they are conveyed that gives the character real voice here. Strayed was a woman who came to the realization of just how many mistakes she’d made in her life. There is a whole issue with the idea of who Strayed thinks she is versus who she actually is or who we perceive her to be that lingers throughout the entire film, but from a general audience perspective it is clear the makers leaned on us wanting to know why this woman so strongly desired to wipe her slate clean that she’d go through with the most literal act imaginable to symbolize that. In order to make that reasoning meet the emotional expectation, besides the editing, one needs sincere and moving performances for such short summations and this is where Witherspoon, along with Laura Dern, really deliver.
The film, more than anything, is the story of the type of love that exists between a mother and daughter. It talks about the ever-evolving relationship between the two as the daughter grows into her own person and the mother becomes the older, guiding figure that child assumed they were from birth. Witherspoon’s Strayed grows from seeing her mother abused to seeing her liberated by leaving her father yet having nothing more in her life besides her children. Strayed prods and pulls at her mother in one flashback about how she can even smile in such a state as Dern exudes an appreciation for life in a fashion her college-aged daughter can’t fathom. Strayed wasn’t always a lost cause, but moments such as this give more weight to events that lead to a grieving process that in turn lead to a rebellion of everything Strayed worked her entire life to build. Going on this journey through the PCT is her needed recovery from that rebellion and it is no doubt because of her self-perception that she does indeed matter (the opposite mindset of most children raised in fractured homes who turn to drugs or sex as a way of escape) that allows her this redemptive trek. The interesting ideas the film touches on are those of the challenges facing a woman to simply walk out of her life. Much is made of the fact there are so few female hikers or female hobos, as one observer likes to refer to Strayed. Women are made to be the mothers and wives, the ones who inherently are given more responsibility in their pre-ordained roles that makes it harder for them to take a break from things or rather just walk away. Strayed realizes this as she watches her mother have no control of her own life for periods of time. This not only forces Strayed into what seems to be a well-balanced relationship, but one that allows her to keep herself planted firmly in the driver’s seat of her own life. Still, at the time of her hike Strayed was newly-divorced, had no permanent address and no idea what her life might hold for her afterwards. She never saw herself as a lost soul, as someone whose personal trauma forced her into this lifestyle, but rather always a worthy opponent to life. Even if the film has a muddled way of dealing with these ideals versus the world’s ideas it is empowering enough to feel her sense of accomplishment as the credits roll even if some of her comfort relies on excuses we all have to make.