If you read a synopsis of the film “Wild,” you may be put off by the fact that it’s a film about grief. Films that have a rather depressing quality to them aren’t often “Saturday at the movies” kind of outings. But here Julie and I were at the movies on a Saturday to see “Wild” starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed — a woman who is trying to rid herself of the demons of the past (drug and sex addiction, losing her mother, and marriage) by simplifying her life and hiking from California to Oregon along the Pacific Crest Trail all by her lonesome.
Now, just having a film about someone walking along a trail could be pretty boring, but this film is anything but boring. First off, the character of Cheryl (as shown in flashbacks) is a young woman who is full of promise and intellect as she tries to move up from her lower class life and get an education. Her mother (as played by Laura Dern) is really the center of Cheryl’s life, and provides a very loving and nurturing life to Cheryl and her brother until she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
The death of Cheryl’s mother sends her into the a downward spiral of drug and sex addiction as she tries to numb herself from the pain of her mother’s death (a mother whom she describes as “The love of her life”). Cheryl is married during her period of grief and drug dependence, but that marriage falls apart and after the divorce (which is one of the most amicable divorces I’ve seen in a film) she decides that she’s going to go on this long hike to try and get her life back on track. She has all the camping gear she can buy (and then some) and sets off one a journey that is fraught with dangers of being along on a trail that very few people hike on.
First off, there are dangers of being inexperienced in the outdoors. She doesn’t know how any of her equipment works, and has many frustrating moments when she can’t get her tent assembled, her portable stove working, nor having enough water. Then there are the natural dangers like snake bites, being torn apart by hungry coyotes, or the falling off a cliff kind of dangers that could easily happen her — and no one would be around to help her. And then there are the other people she encounters on the trail. Being a woman alone on the trail presents itself to the real possibility of rape and even murder. The scenes where Cheryl comes in contact with other men are almost always tense — and the viewer wonders if she will move on from the encounter unharmed. Director Jean-Marc Vallée has a knack for being able to convey what it’s like for a woman to see men as they sometimes see the male human species: potential predators. Moreover, there’s more than one occasion where Cheryl has to diffuse their sexual advances in subtle and not-so-subtle forms. For a character like Cheryl whose own sexual addiction carries an added dimension to the way she sees men, she’s not always on the defensive when it comes to guys. She’s streetwise enough to know who could potentially do her harm, and who won’t. However, there’s an scene early where she’s getting ready for her hike and has checked into a motel room that alludes to Cheryl’s past. The clerk (who is also a woman) tells her that the room is “Eighteen dollars a night…unless there’s someone else who shows up later.” When Cheryl tells her there won’t be anyone, the clerk looks at her for a moment and says something like “Well, not right now.” A few scenes later, Cheryl is looking out of her window in her motel room and notices a guy getting something out of his trunk. She has a flashback to a sexual encounter and realizes that she could easily lure the guy in the parking lot into her room. She resists the temptation, but the scene is key in setting up how Cheryl is still plagued by her addictions — though her drug addiction seems to have evaporated.
Overall, this is one of Reese Witherspoon’s best acted roles. The material is really emotionally raw, and because Jean-Marc Vallée is a director who can avoid the trappings of a potential Lifetime movie plot, “Wild” rises above narratives that delve into downward spirals and redemption arcs. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, but the script (by Nick Hornby) is tight, Witherspoon’s character allows her to portray essentially three women (i.e., the loving daughter who strives to make something better of herself, the bitter drug and sex addicted woman who wants happiness through chemicals and physical pleasure, and the seeker who is trying to avoid the large and small dangers in the wilderness in order to come to terms with her mother’s death). If you’re thinking “Best Actress” nomination for this year’s Oscars, you’re thinking right. See “Wild” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.