At heart, Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s wildly popular memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, is a mother-daughter love story. Cheryl and her mom, Bobbi, attended college at the same time, and before the two got a chance to resolve their deeply loving, deeply charged dynamic (or even receive their degrees), Bobbi died of breast cancer – leaving Cheryl to feel she had failed in what she perceived as her job to protect her mom. It’s no wonder that the younger woman ruined her marriage, became addicted to heroin, and, almost secondarily, forced herself to walk 1,100 miles of desert and mountain land. She had a ghost to exorcise, and she exorcised it so beautifully that along the way she spawned a best-selling memoir – and, by extension, a movie produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon in the titular role. As Witherspoon has joked, this may be the first film ever to star a woman who has no money, no man, no parents, no job, and no opportunities but still boast a happy ending.
The overall pedigree of “Wild” is both impressive and a little surprising. Of course the story has flinty Reese and her strong jaw written all over it, and Laura Dern’s raw grace makes perfect sense for the character of Bobbi. Less intuitive is louche British novelist Nick Hornby as screenwriter, with direction provided by Jean-Marc Vallée, who helmed last year’s sinewy AIDS drama, “Dallas Buyers Club.” Valée also co-edited this film under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy (as he did “Dallas Buyers Club”), and that’s the most important credit at hand. This is a film that’s really all about the editing.
If Cheryl’s story were told in a purely linear way, it’d be as much of a slog as her hike. Instead, it is shot with hand-held cameras that move constantly through 360 degrees, and it jumps among different plot strains – the dissolution of her marriage; her rough, rural childhood; her mother’s illness; her drug use – with individual shots sustained for mere seconds, like whispers. Or hallucinations, which is probably how she experienced her thoughts during the strenuous trek. This editing technique worked fabulously in “Dallas Buyers Club” and mostly works here, though some transitions feel less instinctive than convenient, as do the use of songs to ignite a flashback. In one heavy-handed shift, Cheryl is huffing and puffing through underbrush when we suddenly land on her huffing and puffing during a – shall we say – compromising sexual position that took place years before. Hmmmm.
That tail-wagging aside, “Wild” is to be commended for its representation of Cheryl’s sexuality. Given that her myriad extramarital encounters helped ruin her marriage and that unaccompanied women are often treated as prey, it’d be easy for this film to represent female sexuality – and, for that matter, male sexuality – in black and white terms. Victim. Whore. Predator. You know the spiel. Instead, Cheryl is reflected as a person with both healthy and destructive sexual appetites, and in her travels she encounters as many kind men as opportunistic ones.
The complexity of Cheryl’s character is what really makes this film, though, and for that Witherspoon herself is to be commended. Strayed’s pain, compassion, impatience, pretensions, and genuine literary passion all coexist here, crowding the actress’s face with as much alacrity as memories flash across the screen. Rarely do we experience such a fully fleshed-out female character in film (TV actually tends to do better by women these days), and we get the sense that, as hard as this production was – it was shot on the real-life PCT, and the actress was saddled with a Sisyphean backpack so she would realistically seem burdened – Reese enjoys not playing nice. Also to be commended is Dern, who has made a brilliant career of sussing out the fine line between transcendence and dangerous vulnerability. I can imagine no one else as Bobbi, a woman who managed to dig herself and her kids out of incredibly challenging circumstances but could not shed her attraction to difficult men. Gaby Hoffman, who plays Cheryl’s best friend in a small role, also provides unexpected pleasure; from her roles in “Girls” to “Obvious Child,” the newly returned actress is always a boost. I can’t wait until she scores her first big lead as an adult.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the film “Tracks,” which was released earlier this fall. In yet another example of the bizarre cinematic zeitgeist of “doubles” (such as the two films released in the mid-Aughts about Truman Capote), “Tracks” and “Wild” cover – you should forgive the pun – much of the same terrain. In the former, Mia Wasikowska stars as a lone wolf who hiked across 1,700 miles of Aussie dessert in the 1970s. The more the merrier, I say. (Much as I refuse to dismiss any film as a “chick flick,” I think we could do with many films about women braving challenging territory on their own terms. American movies are mostly about men doing exactly the same thing, and no one complains about “dick flicks.”)
It must be said that “Tracks” boasts far more breathtaking vistas. For a film that is ostensibly about the Great Outdoors, “Wild” is doggedly interior, as if to remind us that we never can see anything so long as we’re blinded by the ghosts of our pasts. It’s admirable, in a way: We’re locked in step with a woman who doesn’t glamorize her surroundings any more than she glamorizes herself. Maybe, in addition to being a mother-daughter love story, this film should be viewed as a modern Western – a kind of twenty-first-century John Ford film, complete with gritty visuals, a frontier spirit, and a solitary traveler. The twist: Rather than a big man in a cowboy hat, we’ve got a small woman in ill-fitting hiking boots.
This review originally was published in Word and Film.