A woman in the middle of a thousand-mile journey throws one of her boots into a crevasse. Why? Why indeed. That is the rosebud of Wild (2014), the story of a woman’s quest to walk the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada and the reasons she finds it necessary to do so. The woman is Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) and as she works her way up through California, Oregon and Washington, every tree branch, watering hole and natural sound remind her of the demons she was hoping to escape in the wide, great nowhere.
One of those demons is Paul (Thomas Sadoski), her ex-husband, who can’t help but remind her of the mistakes she’s made. His affection for her is genuine but so is his resentment; she cheated on him, repeatedly. Another ghost on the trail is that of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), who died of cancer four years earlier and whose absence Cheryl tried to fill with drugs and careless sex. Having cleaned up enough to be physically healthy and having been abandoned by or having pushed away the good influences in her life, she makes a decision to go somewhere where there won’t be any influences: the 2,663 miles of the Pacific Coast Trail. An aspiring writer, she’s going to chronicle her trip and her search for healing. She gives herself a new last name (only a writer could concoct Cheryl Strayed) and hits the trail.
Along the way she comes in contact with various people, other hikers mostly. Some of the strangers are nice, others are threatening, many remain ambiguous about which they are. Most of the time, however, she’s by herself with no one for miles. She’s woefully ill-prepared for the trip: brings the wrong oil for her portable cooker, overpacks a ludicrous backpack that earns the nickname Monster while giving her bruises on her collarbone and back, and her boots are too tight. This ostensibly leads to their eventual airborne dismissal, but the real reason for her frustration and pain are revealed in the flashbacks that pepper Cheryl’s journey. Her mother is a positive force of happy energy, more buoyant than she has any right to be after being abused by a violent husband, forcing her to leave with Cheryl and her brother.
When Cheryl goes to college, the rules state that a parent can also attend for free so Bobbi signs up. Bobbi is taking advantage of an opportunity; Cheryl feels she’s hovering. Every child goes through a phase in which the parent is the object of every bit of scorn and ridicule they can summon the energy for. When the child comes around, every lesson that the parent taught comes into sharp focus and a shame burns inside the child. I would imagine that this shame is more intense when the parent doesn’t live to see the child make this revelation. That kind of grief leads Cheryl down a self-destructive path, a path so barren of joy and love that Cheryl literally chooses an alternative path that goes through the Mojave Desert.
As Cheryl gains confidence on the trail, so is she able to recognize her behavior, accept it for what it is, forgive herself when necessary and be thankful above all. Soon she can understand her behavior and better still, she learns that she has outlasted a number of trail veterans who subtly dismissed her along the way. This personal and physical catharsis is beautifully rendered by Witherspoon who does the right kind of not doing much. The physical work is clearly on display and she internalizes just enough to avoid sanctimonious actorly moments but never too much to lose our interest. In fact, much of the cast is pitched at the same level, though they have less time to make their mark. I’ll remember Dern’s flighty realism, which borders on hokey sentimentality but never gets there, especially in a scene in which her whimsy snaps into wisdom. Sadoski is also understated in his real anguish at only being able to provide conditional love to someone who needs it unconditionally.
The movie is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, making his second feature after last year’s Dallas Buyers Club. In two attempts, I’ve yet to connect with Vallée; something always keeps me at bay. It’s hard to take him to task for anything in particular: he’s clearly a technically proficient filmmaker and there’s some fine work here in regards to the use of music. Songs will be heard on the radio in flashbacks that foreshadow upcoming scenes; motifs will be repeated either on the soundtrack or hummed by characters (although this gets a little on the nose when a character robs Cheryl to the tune of Barrett Strong’s Money [That’s What I Want]), but I never feel too connected.
There is an overwhelming safeness here that was present in Buyers Club as well; there’s a facade of envelope-pushing material but it is devoid of narrative or aesthetic risks. I never feel like anything is on the line for Vallée. True, plenty of films are distinguished by their lack of boldness and many are handsomely rewarded for it (see The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, just this year) but those movies are assembled by technicians—IKEA furniture put together by competent fathers. Vallée gives the impression of an artist and therefore his own lack of stakes is more disappointing than it would be with another director. At only one point does Wild make any sort of diversion from what’s expected in a refreshingly bizarre scene in which Sheryl is stopped, surreally, by a reporter for something called The Hobo Times, and she is misdiagnosed for a vagabond. This scene has no narrative purpose and is completely delightful (mainly because the word “hobo,” repeated often or modified into “lady hobo,” is inherently funny). This is the only time when the movie puts its toe out of line.
None of this dooms the movie, which is quite good. But my hope is that Vallée, an intriguing figure, mirrors the journey of his protagonist here and gets more confident along the way.