Nothing says new start like a three month trek up the pacific west coast with only blistered feet and an empty bank account waiting at the end. If the end ever comes. There are times when that starts to look a remote possibility at best for Cheryl Strayed who made the journey in the 90s. Jean-Marc Valée’s film, adapted by Nick Hornby from Strayed’s own memoir, captures the vivid beauty of her surroundings and the cathartic release brought about by her self-imposed isolation without ever engaging fully with the struggle.
That such an undertaking should prove to be an almost incapacitating challenge comes as no surprise. Dealing with any one of the many environments Cheryl faces would be tough enough. Instead, she combines deserts with mountains and mounds of snow with driving rain. Early scenes highlight the physical demands on Cheryl, played with committed determination and chirpy good humour by Reese Witherspoon. She’s forced to pull out a toe nail as her very first act. Even getting the bag, nicknamed monster by a fellow hiker, onto her back is a battle. The first attempt leaves her stranded like a turtle on the floor of a motel room.
Once on her way, Wild excels as a travelogue. The camera brings snow covered branches, scared rattlesnakes and rock covered paths into shot before moving out to show the never ending reach of American terrain. People are few and far between on the journey, but enough make an impact to drag Cheryl from her inner world. Whether she’s bickering with a journalist who’s mistaken her for a hobo, making up lies to protect herself against a man who ultimately wants to offer her only liquorice, or fleeing leering hunters who couldn’t make their intentions more clear, Hornby mixes a compelling combination of humour and threat into the screenplay to hold attention.
There’s also an ongoing flirtation with the difficulties she faces as a women on the trek alone. The moment by a small puddle with the two hunters provides her personal nadir. It’s not unremittingly bleak though. She may mutter regularly that she’s about to be raped and dismembered by hitchhikers but the kindness of strangers goes a long way. A trio of young male hikers even nickname her the Queen of the PCT in a nod to the level of support she gets from everyone along the way.
Hornby only includes this as a cursory addition to the script, an oversight that is not confined to her gender alone. Scattered in amongst the hard walking are flashbacks to a life gone wrong. She had a mother (Laura Dern) and a husband (Thomas Sadoski) but lost both in different ways leading into a spiral of casual sex and drug addiction. Handsomely captured, the scenes float by without ever connecting. There’s no real feeling of struggle, only a glimpse. It’s why the hunters stand out so strongly. Their scene manages a spine tingling impact that is sorely lacking from the pretty visuals and the all too obvious message that she had to battle through the wilds to find herself again.
Wild has plenty going for it, notably an eye-catching central performance and a pretty travelogue approach. Less impressively, the pretty travelogue approach is applied to her personal life as well. In the end it’s sanitised suffering; worth a brief look but not a prolonged stay.