When Reese Witherspoon staggers onto the Pacific Crest Trail under an oversize backpack in the smart, shapely film of Cheryl Strayed’s best-selling memoir, Wild, she’s the latest in a line of protagonists dating back hundreds if not thousands of years — people who embark on long wilderness walks to cleanse themselves of the accretions of civilization, terrible sin, or grief. Crucial to such stories is intense suffering, both physical (blisters, abrasions, sundry assaults on the flesh) and emotional (loneliness, fear, punishing memories). Women, however, weren’t always allowed to set off on epic journeys — they generally ended up in convents, taking the veil. That’s what makes Wild and Robyn Davidson’s earlier, somewhat similar Tracks so appealing. Strayed and Davidson are testing themselves physically, just like men. (Men appear in both memoirs to wonder aloud how a little lady could do such a thing.) And not only do they not take the veil, they allow themselves to have casual sex on the road. (It’s no coincidence that the movie has Strayed’s mother — who enrolls in college alongside her daughter — asking Cheryl the definition of Erica Jong’s “zipless fuck.”) Freeing themselves from society and in defiance of cautionary mansplaining, these are heroines of the purest, most literal “women’s lib” stories.
Working from a deft script by the novelist Nick Hornby, director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) weaves Strayed’s wrenching memories through shots of her trudging … and trudging … and trudging … from Southern California to the Bridge of the Gods, which separates Oregon from Washington State. As she lets loose with obscenities over her latest misstep, there comes a flurry of images: her precious, upbeat single mom (Laura Dern) reaching out; herself as a little girl in a drugstore running with antiseptic for her mother’s bruises; a teacher reading an Adrienne Rich poem (“Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power”); a beloved horse; a series of terrible X-rays … and then it’s back to the trail for more groaning and swearing. The soundtrack is extraordinary. Songs from the Shangri-Las, Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, Portishead, and many others drift in and out, sometimes taken up by Strayed as she heads into the scrubby landscape toward a mountain a long way away. The fragmentation is remarkably fluid. The pieces are all of a piece.
Witherspoon doesn’t look as hardy as the real Strayed, who shows up in a series of photos beside the credits. But her small stature adds to the movie’s charm. Witherspoon’s edginess makes her easy — and fun — to read; her face registers every bump on the path. She has always been an actress who “indicates” — i.e., telegraphs her emotions — but up through Walk the Line, her tics were in the service of her tightly wound characters. It was only in the past few years, in her evident quest to be America’s sweetheart, that she wrinkled her large brow and worked her big jaw for the sole purpose of looking adorable. In Wild, though, her scrunchy face looks like the upshot of braininess, restlessness, having a motor that runs too fast. It captures the feeling of Strayed’s prose, which can seem a mite self-centered but is always processing. Wild is not the sort of book — or movie — in which the heroine strives to achieve “oneness” with the natural world. The aim is to put the pieces of her past into a coherent order and, in doing so, turn a screwed-up life into something more positive (writing a book about how she turned her screwed-up life into something more positive, for example).
Witherspoon — who co-produced the film — is always at the center, but she’s not the whole show. There’s Dern, of course, who’s lovable as always, though there are too many shots in which she’s radiantly bedraggled, poised to offer inspirational life lessons. (Her life lessons were more profound in Enlightened, pumped out to keep a sinking ship afloat.) Thomas Sadoski plays the husband on whom Strayed compulsively cheated after her mother’s death and with whom she maintains an intimate if wary friendship — a model for what Gwynnie P. now calls “conscious uncoupling.” Elsewhere, I liked W. Earl Brown as an old tractor-puller, little Evan O’Toole doing a chorus of “Red River Valley” that might make you blubber, and especially Mo McRae as an enthusiastically oblivious writer for The Hobo Times who thinks he has found his cover girl. A couple of male bowhunters look like they wandered in from Deliverance, but the point hits home. Single women can never lower their guard.
Wild has a fair number of product placements, some well earned. (REI really did help out Strayed by sending a better-fitting pair of boots to her on the trail.) But the most prominent is for the Pacific Crest Trail itself. The folks up there better ready themselves for an influx of women going solo. Cuts, bruises, and horrible hygiene have never looked so glamorous.
*This article appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.