Wild is yet another film based on a true story, as currently seems to be in vogue for some reason. (See The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, The Theory of Everything, Testament of Youth etc.) Maybe the film world has run out of made-up stories, which was bound to happen sooner or later, as you can’t just pluck them out of the air? I don’t know. I can only tell you that this is the story of Cheryl Strayed who, after a series of personal struggles, opts to rebuild herself by walking 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon/Washington border. This is a female on-the-road narrative, which should be cause for celebration in and of itself, as it’s a genre that, going right back to The Odyssey, has never given women much of a look-in. But somehow Cheryl always feels at arm’s length, plus it veers towards the Oprah-ish. I understood where she was coming from when she said, ‘I am going to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was,’ but I was still a little bit sick in my mouth.
Adapted by Nick Hornby from Strayed’s memoir, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl. This is Witherspoon’s comeback, everyone is saying; her best performance since Walk the Line, which may be true, but it is certainly not her best film since then. It opens amid forested mountains — Walk the Pines? — with Cheryl panting up an incline under the weight of an absurdly huge rucksack. (A novice hiker, she didn’t know what not to take.) She reaches the top and removes a boot to reveal a bloodied foot and loose toe nail, which she yanks off with a scream of agony. She then accidentally knocks the boot down into the ravine below and, in a fury, throws the other boot after it. Bit silly. No boots at all now. But this neatly shows us Cheryl: the anger, the pain, her defiance, and also her resourcefulness. She winds her feet in duct tape and presses on — God love her.
The film then toggles between the past and present; between her journey today, with its dehydrated foods, rattlesnakes and (rather dead-end) encounters with kindly strangers and predatory males, to what has brought her here. The flashbacks show an abusive father, a heroin addiction, and the collapse of her own marriage, which she destroyed with a series of infidelities. (Strayed by name, strayed by nature, you would think, but she changed her name to Strayed by deed poll because of her regrettable behaviour. Weird. What if we all did it? I’d be Deborah Lazy or something.) But, mostly, Cheryl is grieving for her beloved mother (Laura Dern) who died harrowingly, at 45, from lung cancer, and who was kind and loving and optimistic and sunny. We are poor, she tells Cheryl, but ‘rich in love’, at which point I was again a little bit sick in my mouth.
This isn’t Eat Pray Love Puke, as it is known in our house, but it is self-helpy around the edges, in that sentimental way that probably goes down better in America than here. The bigger issue may be the disconnect between the Cheryl of the past and the Cheryl of today, as they never properly segue in a way that gives us an understanding of Cheryl as a whole person, hence the arm’s length remark above. I never felt I came to know her. This may be due to the episodic script and the direction, which blandly plods rather than meshes. Here’s a flashback, cut to present. Here’s a flashback, cut to present. Yes, Cheryl was a heroin addict, but now she isn’t. How, I wanted to know, did that happen? What was the process? Yes, she reacted to her mother’s death with promiscuity, but what lay behind that? I understood that Cheryl needed to break herself apart to put herself together again but how, even, does that actually work. Her character travels from being one thing to being another without much psychological insight in between. Similarly, if the hike is a hike to redemption, when did that happen, and why? As far as I could tell, it was only redemptive because, by the end, Cheryl had decided this was so, and that she would be happy from now on.
That said, it is certainly Witherspoon’s best performance since Line. She is gritty and fierce and I did not have any trouble buying her as a 26-year-old, and younger, even though she is 37. But her performance can’t deliver the emotional punch the film requires, can’t bring together the two Cheryls as the script and direction should have done. Still, it is a female road movie, which should be celebrated, and maybe you can put up with the Oprah-isms, if you try? ‘I was lost in the wilderness of my guilt and needed to find my way out of the woods.’ Or maybe not.