Cheryl Strayed’s life is in shambles. Her mother’s sudden death, a result of a virulent bout of lung cancer, has sent her into a spiraling depression. She starts having sex with complete strangers, leaving her husband with no choice but to abandon the marriage. The grief and loneliness gets too much to bear, and she turns to heroin to numb the pain.
These moments present themselves as flashbacks interspersed through Wild (2014), a journey in which Strayed (portrayed by Reese Witherspoon) struggles to get her life back on track. Her turning point comes at the unlikeliest of places – a drugstore – where she chances upon a glossy nature guidebook while queuing for a pregnancy test kit. The cover, a tranquil landscape of river and mountains, was almost like a window to another world, one that the viewer would soon be entering. Like a final attempt to hold on to her life, she runs back to the store, grabs the book and takes it with her on a 1,100-mile journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. She was going to “walk herself back to the woman her mother thought she was”.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a movie about a woman walking a thousand miles can sustain anyone’s attention for two hours. But the punctuation of the main storyline with painful flashbacks of Strayed’s past, coupled with beautiful landscapes of the cascades and Mojave Desert, makes this film put together by Jean-Marc Vallée one of the most thoughtful autobiographical movies of all time. Apart from the editing, Witherspoon’s performance is one of the key factors that truly make this movie the success it is. At age 38, it sounds almost silly to have her play a 22-year-old. But she manages to pull off the rebellious spunky vibe needed of the role, and on top of it offers the maturity of a woman who knows what she wants. Having her in almost every single frame of the film is risky business for Vallée, but it works, because the audience really gets a chance to know her.
Strayed’s long cross-country hike comes with its fair share of physical challenges, but these pale in comparison with the mental battles she had with herself. Hints of sadness and regret throughout the film are accentuated by the choice of soundtrack, with songs like The Shangri-Las’ “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and Simon and Garfunkel’s El Condor Pasa (If I Could) on repeat to add that extra charm.
This movie however is not without its flaws. While the acting was nothing to complain about, several of the actors should have been given a chance to develop their roles, like Gaby Hoffmann who played Aimee, the best friend, and Thomas Sadoski who played Paul, Cheryl’s ex-husband. It would have been interesting to see more of their dynamics with Witherspoon’s character and while also adding to the backstory. But these, I guess I can forgive, because for a movie about flaws and self-acceptance, its shortcomings should also count for something.