Movie Review: Wild
By Matthew Huntley
December 15, 2014
Conceptually and on paper, Wild is an inherently powerful drama about one woman’s long journey toward redemption and self-discovery. The film has everything required to be reflective and emotionally moving. But then why did I walk away from it more appreciative of its efforts than actually moved?
The reason, I think, is because we know from the very beginning what type of story this will be. In fact, Wild explicitly professes itself as a story of redemption and self-discovery, and so when the heroine embarks on her journey, it more or less plays out the way we expect (because we know what it wants to do ahead of time). It therefore lacks a certain level of mystery and surprise. This doesn’t make it any less important, but perhaps it does make it less entertaining.
Cheryl Strayed’s message to us in the film, and no doubt in her real-life memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is clear: Sometimes we must endure self-imposed hardships in order to atone for prior sins - sins against ourselves and others. We hope that such discipline will allow us to wipe the slate clean, or at least make it cleaner, in order to prepare for future experiences, both pleasant and unpleasant.
In spite of this point being rather obvious, Wild does a good job of getting us to empathize with Cheryl, especially her physical burdens as the 22-year-old hikes the 1,100 miles from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods between Oregon and Washington. Cheryl is played by Reese Witherspoon, who fully embeds herself in a role that is anything but glamorous, and yet neither she nor director Jean-Marc Vallée harps on just how un-glamorous it is. Just as Matthew McConaughey and Vallée did with Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club, Witherspoon and Vallée make Cheryl Strayed a real, organic character. Given her past troubles, she’s not someone we necessarily want to know; she’s also not someone we necessarily like. What’s important is we get a sense of what she’s going through and Witherspoon and the filmmakers make that happen.
Why does Cheryl decide to make such a long trek? We learn through flashbacks that, following the death of her mother (Laura Dern), she descended into a period of self-destruction. To cope with her grief, she cheated on her husband (Thomas Sodoski) with multiple partners and used heroin. It wasn’t until she learned she was pregnant that Cheryl knew she had to put a stop to her downward spiral and re-become the woman her mom knew she could be. Inspiring her are memories of her mom smiling, singing and being proud, despite having barely survived an abusive relationship with Cheryl’s dad, living poorly, and eventually battling cancer.
Cheryl’s first step toward turning her life around is to hike the Pacific Coast Trail over the course of three months, knowing full well it will only be nature, wild creatures, and other random hikers to keep her company. Along the way, she’ll walk, climb, camp, decipher instructions, write, cry, and go without those everyday things we all take for granted, like heat, showers and tacos. But she tells herself this is the price she must pay.
As an audience, we hardly envy Cheryl or her situation, which is simply a testament to the film’s effect because, as we watch it, we too feel tired, frustrated and out of our element. It’s these moments when the film is most engrossing because it reminds us our everyday comforts and luxuries are merely privileges that can go away at any time.
Where the movie goes slightly wrong is in its biased portrayal of the male characters, or men in general. Too many scenes suggest that Cheryl could potentially be attacked or raped by each of the men she comes across and we’re initially inclined to think of them as automatically violent, sinister or unseemly. True: there are people like that in this world - both men and women - and I’m sure the real Cheryl genuinely felt threatened and vulnerable, but narratively speaking, Wild presents this notion too often and its loses its effect and credibility.
So given its rather predictable trajectory and flaws, is Wild a good movie? Yes, it is good, because it allows us to identify with Cheryl and understand her position in life. As she learns and grows, we feel we do too and we can’t help but recall sins from our own lives that we hope we righted (or maybe after watching Wild, we will choose to make the effort). It’s also good because of Reese Witherspoon’s raw, unaffected performance. She’s poured her heart, mind and body into this character and we never get the sense she undertook it to win awards, although she’s deserving, but rather for the challenge and significance.
Still, as a whole, I don’t think the film is as potent as it could have been. I found its structure too familiar and it was too obvious where it was going, which is ironic because the heroine is anything but certain, which is why she’s making this journey in the first place. If the movie had chosen a more offbeat way to tell Cheryl’s story instead of a traditional, linear model interspersed with flashbacks, it might have approached a more complete level of greatness instead of just being marginally good with a few great elements.