There’s an unfortunate modern trend for certain types of people to undertake amazing trips around the world and act as if they’re hardships done for purely charitable reasons. I once read an incredibly frustrating book that did exactly that – detailed a couple of young adults having the time of their lives venturing from country to country yet writing about it as if they were valiantly striving for the benefit of others. Yes of course big trips (particularly on a budget) can be very challenging at times but let’s be honest here; you’re ultimately going to have an amazing and rewarding experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
As someone who greatly enjoys travelling myself, I’m not so fond of seeing other people do it.
It didn’t just look like a glorified gap-year video diary, but I was weary that Wild might come across as a polished, film version of something like that scenario, knowing little of the true story behind it. Thankfully it completely avoids this attitude, primarily due to the motivations Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) has for her trek, and some skilful weaving of flashbacks into the main narrative. She isn’t just a twenty-something going off to explore for the first time, or a middle aged woman seeking to ‘find herself’, there’s a different story here (Witherspoon’s age – 38 – is actually one of the few slightly problematic points of the film, more on that later).
The film begins with Cheryl at a mid-point in her quest, her feet worn out, she has to extract one of her broken toenails in a wince-inducing moment. In the process the boot she removed is knocked over and plummets down the rock face below. Desperate and enraged she hurls the remaining boot down to join it, yelling expletives. While effectively (and intentionally) attention grabbing, it’s not representative of the whole movie, making Wild look like it might focus on how difficult her hike is.
Adapted from Strayed’s memoir by novelist Nick Hornby, Wild takes us back to the beginning of her quest, and intercuts flashback’s to her youth throughout to gradually reveal exactly the state she was in before setting out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1,100-mile journey across the United States. There’s a comic element to how poorly she’s prepared – she’s simultaneously brought too much and not enough. The scene when she first attempts to put on her monstrous backpack plays like a piece of physical comedy.
Her background, mainly revolving around her relationship with her mother, is far, far from humorous however. First her mother has to escape an abusive husband and raise two children alone, then just as she’s beginning to get her life on track again is diagnosed with cancer. This sends Cheryl into a destructive spiral of despair, having anonymous sex with multiple men, and using heroin in an attempt to cope with her grief. In these flashbacks Laura Dern, as Cheryl’s mother is excellent, her caring optimism shining through even when she’s physically beaten.
The flashback structure might sound similar to many a biopic, but it really assists Wild in a way that having it play out in a linear, three-act structure wouldn’t. There isn’t any one determined moment when Cheryl decides to ‘sort her life out’ or something similarly corny. Having these moments appear at differing points in her trek helps reflect the mind-set someone spending all day walking alone might be in. The fact that her trial is basically self-inflicted also prevents it from being a typicaly worthy awards-y tale of endurance over hardship.
In a quick turnaround from last year’s Dallas Buyers Club, director Jean-Marc Vallée reveals considerably more visual flair than before, sharply editing transitions to and from the flashbacks along with audio cues, combining cinematic techniques to match the meandering thoughts of a hiker. His photography of the American landscapes also captures the natural beauty to be found there.
Wild manages to show many of the good and bad sides of long distance hiking. Strayed’s naivety leaves her woefully unprepared for many of the challenges she faces, but people she meets along the way, both fellow hikers and locals often offer invaluable kindness and advice (regrettably sometimes peppered with blatant product placement). At the same time it effectively communicates the fear of male predators she might possess being a lone woman in wilderness.
Depicting a solo expedition presents a significant challenge for an actor, having to hold the screen alone, but Wild actually doesn’t feature too much of just Witherspoon by herself, perhaps to help avoid repetitive trekking scenes. Witherspoon’s very good here, possibly a career best turn. I occasionally find her a little grating on screen, and generally prefer when she plays less likeable characters such as in Election, but here she impresses through her whole redemptive arc.
The slight issue I mentioned at the start is that she’s playing a woman in her mid-twenties, and in the flashbacks even younger. It’s not that she looks especially old, she doesn’t, but I think due to me being too used to seeing her onscreen at this point. I’ve seen her play teenage roles in films from the mid-late nineties and suddenly having her go back to playing a student again over a decade later proves to be a little distracting. Laura Dern, playing her mother so well is in actuality only nine years Witherspoon’s senior. It’s a very minor fault, there are no mentions of her age during the main hiking narrative and only during a few of the flashbacks does it become prominent.
Like another of this month’s great films Whiplash, Wild chooses not to adopt a typical Hollywood ending and is all the better for it. It closes not with cheap uplift but on a note of hopeful optimism, a fitting conclusion to one of the least contrite biographical films of this ‘prestige season’.