Thursday, December 18, 2014
I was surprised to appreciate “Wild” a lot more than I thought I would. The tale of a young woman who sets off on a seemingly random 1,000-mile trek by foot to find herself, it looked like the sort of simplistic, life-affirming pap you often see in cinemas this time of year.
But buoyed by a terrific, grounded performance by Reese Witherspoon, “Wild” is anything but maudlin. It’s a tough, gritty look at a woman at their end of her rope, who sets out on an expedition in which the destination doesn’t matter, but testing herself in spirit and body is the true aim.
She happened to choose the Pacific Crest Trail, a grueling path through the Western mountains and deserts, as her personal crucible. But really, it could have been anything.
Her story is less about going somewhere, and more about finding your own path, and getting started along it.
The quality of the filmmakers behind the project should have clued me in. Director Jean-Marc Vallée was nominated for an Oscar last year for “Dallas Buyers Club,” and also helmed the high-toned “The Young Victoria.” Screenwriter Nick Hornby is known for cerebral material such as “An Education” and “About a Boy.”
The film is based on the best-selling book by Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the PCT through California, Oregon and Washington two decades ago while in her mid-20s. Her marriage had just come off the tracks and ended in divorce, due mostly to her philandering. (Thomas Sadoski has a tidy, small role as her long-suffering but sweet husband.)
On top of that, her beloved mother (a glowing Laura Dern) had died of cancer, and Cheryl was getting ever more heavily into hard drugs. Clearly things were headed in a foul direction.
Instead of hitting rock bottom, though, she came across the idea of traveling the PCT, despite being an itinerate hiker herself. We see exactly how inept she was in the early going, as she struggles to shoulder a pack that is literally bigger than her, and tears her feet to bloody shreds with too-small boots.
Cheryl meets a few people along the way, mostly men, and there’s an explicit threat of assault or rape with many of these encounters, as a young cute blonde girl all alone on the trail. But she proves quite able, and some scary meetings turn out to be friendlier than first blush. (W. Earl Brown turns up nicely as a gruff bushmaster.) Still, a couple of hunters appear to enjoy frightening her just for the sheer thrill of it.
In the film’s most bizarre (but true!) sequence, she is nearly run over by an enthusiastic African-American reporter for the Hobo Times who says his name is Jimmy Carter. Despite Cheryl’s protestations that she’s not homeless, just in between homes, she ends up becoming an unwilling subject for the publication.
Along the way, our protagonist is revealed to be a thoughtful, literate woman – she writes down quotes from famous writers in the trail station journals – who’s simply made a lot of bad choices in her life. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, she hits the road like a latter-day Jack Kerouac, though on her own two feet rather than behind the wheel.
Instead of just flaunting her freedom, though, Cheryl Strayed was seeking inspiration and forgiveness. “Wild” is the soulful tale of how she learned these were not things out there to be discovered, but gifts only she could give to herself.