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With the dissolution of her marriage and the death of her mother, Cheryl Strayed has lost all hope. After years of reckless, destructive behavior, she makes a rash decision. With absolutely no experience, driven only by sheer determination, Cheryl hikes more than a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, alone. WILD powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddens, strengthens, and ultimately heals her.
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Based on Strayed’s 2012 memoir, which I greatly enjoyed, Wild puts us in the shoes of Strayed in her self-healing. We feel her pain, see her experiences, and we are up close and personal with her; everything she feels, we feel. With a great use of flashbacks to flesh out Cheryl’s story, Wild strikes a delicate balance of biographical storytelling. The more accessible scenes of Cheryl’s physically exhausting hike are paralleled with flashbacks of her past. We learn of her mother’s death, her nasty divorce, and her reckless sex and drug abuse that leads her to make the decision to hike over 1,000 miles. If you’re not a fan of flashbacks, Wild probably won’t change your mind, but give it a chance because they’re necessary to get the full picture.
Cheryl’s a likable character, to be sure, and Wild reminds us this fact several times along the trail. Her journey is funny, emotional, and altogether enjoyable. Any backpackers will relate with her struggles with her “monster” backpack, and her side journeys to towns and stranger’s homes gives us scenery changes that show Cheryl’s true colors.
Wild really excels at creating an emotional bond between the viewer and Cheryl herself. This wouldn’t be possible without Reese Witherspoon’s outstanding performance, her best by a mile. Witherspoon connects with Strayed in ways unimaginable, striking a chord with anyone in the audience. Wild is a feminist tale, and it’s great to see a well-developed female protagonist in such a physically and emotionally empowering role. Witherspoon lays out all her cards on the table as Cheryl Strayed. She’s vulnerable, but also she isn’t; She’s open to repair her emotional wounds because she understands herself. Her conversations with fellow backpackers along the PCT show us the true Cheryl.
Strayed’s mother, Bobbi, played by Laura Dern, is also a great character. Despite being developed entirely in flashbacks, we know enough about her to know she was more than just a mother to Cheryl. Dern brings her A-game as well – her infectious smile and personality are enough to put a smile on anyone’s face with their well-developed mother-daughter relationship.
Cheryl’s reinvention of herself parallels her emotional turmoil of her past, and the film employs unique devices to create that bind. Director Vallee is smart in his framing and storytelling devices that book readers will catch, but also non-readers will be familiar with and recognize. It’s some expert filmmaking that I haven’t seen in a long time. With Dallas Buyers Club and now again with Wild, Vallee has solidified himself as someone to watch. The film is meticulously and beautiful crafted, with beautiful landscape shots that make the viewer want to be there alongside Cheryl, and a soundtrack with hand-selected pieces that mirror her journey, Wild is the complete package.
The biggest appeal of watching the movie, since I already knew the story, lay in the hopes of some stunning scenery along the Pacific Coast Trail. I found that the movie largely tracked the book. Strayed had a troubled life: a father who disappeared too early in life, a mother who died early also, of cancer, a marriage that did not provide the support and meaning that she needed, leading to heroin addiction and mindless couplings… or, as one character said in the movie: “you give yourself to any man who asks.”
The solution? As Peacock discovered: Walk it off. Virtually no preparation, which can be maddening, and although I am a big advocate of “belts and suspenders” (i.e., some redundancy) when on one’s own, and a bit of planning, she largely winged it, with predictable consequences. Reading the directions to the cooking stove, for the first time, at the first campsite, and then realizing you have the wrong fuel, is a leading indicator that would predict an early bail out. “True Grit” prevailed though, and I sure admire her for that. She gets the right fuel, and lightens her load, with the help of a wise trail “angel.”
The movie depicted well the incident in the book of the classic problem of women alone: not rattlesnakes or bears, but jerk men… or worse, who see you as an easy prey. It is enraging, and as a man, embarrassing, that just one man can intrude, and even terrorize, when there are all those other matters to deal with… like securing the next dry campsite.
I did not get the stunning landscapes that I had hoped for… the cinema graphics were just OK. The principle problem of the movie (as well as the book) though, is that one did not get the sense that she overcame the PTSD, as it were. Far too many flashbacks, as though she was still having to relive it. There was no sense that she developed a feel for the natural world, the plants, the topography, obtaining some solace there that heals the trauma. The hike was mainly a “slog,” humpin’ that pack, like in the ‘Nam. Enduring. Yes, the slog was a significant achievement, and I will continue to admire her for that, and her “long walk,” thereby restored a sense of self-worth, but did it encapsulate the demons and dilemmas of the past in a shell, still accessible, but relegated to a small portion of your thoughts, as you hope to discover what is around the next curve on the trail? And has she taken a long-distance hike since? Her website says that hiking is one of her favorite activities still. But there is no hint that “Wild II” is in the foreseeable future. Her story apparently resonates, with 13,000 plus reviews of the book at Amazon, and 4,000 plus for the movie as opposed to 24 for Peacock’s book… which might correspond to the ratio of people who have had those two very different versions of “PTSD.” For the movie, 4-stars.