Focusing on one character for a feature-length film can be tricky. His or her story has to be compelling enough to warrant such an in-depth look at the person’s life, but not so singular that it doesn’t allow for interesting side characters.
Reese Witherspoon has found such a story with Wild, in which she plays Cheryl Strayed, who wrote the book upon which the movie is based. In response to a series of life crises, Strayed decided to hike the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 with little to no previous hiking experience.
The film, directed by Jean-Marc Valleé and written by Nick Hornby, essentially puts the audience inside Strayed’s head, allowing us to take many side trips into her past thanks to her unceasing thoughts during the long journey. These include ruminations on her relationship with her mother (Laura Dern), her ex-husband (Thomas Sadoski) and the many poor decisions that led her to this point in her life.
To put it mildly, this role is far afield from Witherspoon’s work in comedies or even her Oscar-winning part in Walk the Line.
To put it mildly, this role is far afield from Witherspoon’s work in comedies or even her Oscar-winning part in Walk the Line. Among Strayed’s indiscretions prior to the hike are heavy drug use and taking part in indiscriminate affairs, and Witherspoon doesn’t shy away from the ugly aspects of either.
While Strayed’s misdeeds are great and her method toward exorcising her demons extreme, it’s easy to empathize with her. Who among us hasn’t wanted to escape from the world for a while, or hasn’t felt guilt over things we can and cannot control? The film does an excellent job of making Strayed relatable without sugarcoating the more unflattering parts of her life.
The actual hike part of the film is interesting and contains several fun interactions, but Valleé and Hornby are guilty of making it look both too easy and too threatening at certain points. Granted, it would be impossible to show every step of Strayed’s 94-day journey, but except for a couple of minor hiccups, her trek is shown to be remarkably stress-free for someone who had rarely hiked before.
On the flip side, the film makes a bit too much of Strayed’s encounters with possibly shifty men. Although a single woman hiking alone through the wilderness should naturally be on guard, her encounters with a few nefarious characters have the whiff of over-dramatization, whether they happened or not.
But the performance of Witherspoon holds the film together throughout. Her naturally welcoming face at first seems to be a deterrent to digging into the story’s nitty-gritty details, but that becomes less and less of an issue as the film goes along. Mostly it’s just a pleasure seeing her inhabit a character that appears to be the polar opposite of her public persona and pulling it off without a hitch.
Wild explores one woman’s soul as she explores the great American West, and both she and the audience become richer because of it.