December 6, 2014 | 6:27pm EST
In 1995, Cheryl Strayed took off on an eleven-hundred-mile trek to put aside the pain of grieving her mother's death and save herself from her own destructive behavior. When her memoir became a bestseller in 2012, Reese Witherspoon grabbed onto it with the aim to make it through her own production company, Pacific Standard, and starring herself as the independent, troubled young woman. Wild is her movie (with credit due to photographer Yves Bélanger, screenwriter Nick Horby and director Jean-Marc Vallée). Witherspoon commands the screen and brings emotional connection to an already interesting story.
Recently divorced, unemployed, orphaned and effectively homeless, Cheryl decided to hike the Pacific Coast Trail because of a book, a trail guide that caught her eye at one of her lowest moments. The image on the cover was of a beautifully still lake, bestrode by distant mountains. Even in the confusion and anxiety of her circumstance, she could not get that image out of her head; and in her head she could see herself in that image. Why she did this is for psychoanalysts to decide, or at the very least for herself to decide, but her ex-husband character in the film did the best job with a sentence he couldn't even finish: "I'm sorry you have to walk a thousand miles to..."
2014 has been a great year for film, from smart blockbusters to experimental indies, from new discoveries to careers reborn, but all year I had been waiting for a movie like Wild. It is honest, inspirational and unspeakably beautiful to look at. It is a movie about escape that forces the audience to escape, to get caught up in the adventure of real-life Cheryl Strayed and take a journey -- if only spiritual -- up the Pacific Coast Trail. Not necessarily the events depicted, which can easily be explained with words, this ineffable feeling is what going to the movies is all about.
The opening moments of Wild are an effective microcosm of the film at large. A few landscape shots put you, the viewer, out in the wild with Cheryl. Close-ups on Witherspoon establish the singular nature of the star's character -- with other performances do dazzle, no one else gets enough screen time to truly impact her movie. She takes off her too-small hiking boots to reveal a bloody foot and a toenail that has seen better days. Bravely and with gusto, she removes the nail. It had to happen, so she did the deed. But her boot got loose and tumbled down the mountainside, to which Cheryl's reaction was to throw the other one along with it, and scream some curses so she could probably be heard across the state of California. Then, in an inexplicably well-suited manner, the screen does a couple of quick cuts, flashbacks to sexually charged moments from Cheryl's past. Then it rests, titles.
In a lot of ways, Wild does a better job at demonstrating how the mind works, through the example of the protagonist, than almost any film I have seen (or at least any film not written by Charlie Kaufman). On the trail, all of the days become one. All of the sunset, and cold mush dinners and even the trails, reaching every northward, become one mess of memories when you are on them for three months. Songs get stuck in Cheryl's head (I'm thinking specifically of "Homeward Bound" by Simon & Garfunkel) and the rattle around the soundtrack in the same way, playing the same sections over and going back to the start arbitrarily, a super subtle and super subtle way of putting the audience in the same state of mind as the hiker. Along with these songs, the people she meets and experiences she has along the way trigger a series of memories. Wild is largely a non-linear film, but while this can be tacky it works because it never draws attention to itself. The flashbacks come naturally and in a way that makes sense. They don't reveal everything at once, but they also don't tease at what's missing. Be it the early divorce segment or blurry, long-forgotten memories of her abusive father, these bits just are, just like memories that come to you or me on a daily basis. It's a film that could very well be studied for its mastery of storytelling.
About hiking, no matter how grateful Cheryl is for her experience and how much fun she can have, this film is comically honest. It is not easy. In fact, the audience reacts to many of Cheryl's struggles with a sympathetic chuckle and total understanding, which is to director Vallée's credit. One such scene has a flurry of narrative benefits beyond simply being an obvious step in the story: Cheryl putting on her pack for the first time. It's comical because she clearly has no idea what she is in for. And she falls. Repeatedly. It adds to the inspirational aspect of the film; showing how low she started emphasizes how far she's come. But it also acts symbolically, setting in motion the film's metaphor of rebirth and self-discovery. She slides her shoulders under the straps and buckles herself in, but cannot stand. The first few days of her trip, this becomes a real spectacle, a grown woman who has to reteach herself to stand up. She tries going from her knees, from a squat, both legs, one leg at a time. I don't have any children, or even any siblings young enough to count, so I imagine this is what watching an infant learning to walk is like.
She says she wants to be the girl who says "yes" all the time, which leads her to drugs and extramarital sex as an escape from her grief. It doesn't work, but the PCT is the greatest escape one can ask for. She draws inspiration from these depressing memories of heroin and sex, knowing that she needs to push forward toward a new life. She also draws inspiration from happy memories, like her mother's great attitude ("There'll be a lot worse days than this one… I want to live"). Bobbi, her mother, is played by the impeccably cast Laura Dern. Seriously, no other living actress could have fit into this role like Laura Dern did, and she is at the top of her game to boot.
Also on top of his game is Yves Bélanger, the cinematographer who worked previously with Vallée on top-Oscar nominee Dallas Buyers Club. Putting aside for a moment Witherspoon's incredible turn, the photography makes this film the emotionally ride it is. Between establishing different tones for the three distinct yet interwoven time periods of the movie and making the PCT as beautiful on screen as it was in Cheryl's guide book, Wild could work with the sound muted, which is the highest of compliments to cinematographers and actors. It balances electric hard cuts of single shots from Cheryl's past with soft, relaxed experiences of the hike. In the quiet in between, the shooting style is unoriginal but not in a bad way. It puts emphasis on the beauty of the landscape, and the full moon and the sunset. He also uses age-old tactics to add to the emotion of otherwise trivial moments; Witherspoon, already nice to look at, is often shot with natural light creating a halo effect in her hair. Put this against a scarlet sky, and have the actress give a convincingly optimistic half-smile, and everyone in the audience will get chills. What I'm saying is, see this movie on the biggest screen you can find, sit nice and close so you lose the corners of the frame, and enter the world of Wild.
Undeniably sexist against men and with an episode or two that could have been cut (one, which I'm calling the "horny hunters scene" stands out), Wild is very nearly without flaw, and one of the truly great films I have seen this year. This is in part because of the moments that are not just about Cheryl. She says she was lonelier in her "real life" than on the trail, where she meets a handful of helpful fellow hikers and catches rides with some real characters. She even happens upon what can only be described as a hippie revival in Ashland, Oregon, where she cleans up and reminds herself what it's like to live life off the trail surrounded by other people. She was lonely. That's why she took the trip. At times, like hanging out with three boys also thru-hiking, these encounters remind her of how lonely she is. David Foster Wallace once wrote, "The purpose of fiction is to combat loneliness." Cheryl did so by living a life worth writing (admittedly, it was not fiction). Watching this movie also does the trick.